New York: Queen Victoria is winning new fans who are seeing sides of her that have not been shown before in popular culture. Early this year, Americans were caught up in Victoria, a British-made TV series on the earliest years of Queen Victoria’s life and reign that, as the biggest period drama in 20 years – second only to Downton Abbey – enticed millions of enchanted viewers.
Victoria starts with a diminutive, neglected teenager who, at 18, in 1837, is crowned queen and rises to become the most powerful woman in the world as Empress of India. Actress Jenna Coleman plays the lead and is such a look-alike that it is easy to see her as an amazingly attractive queen in contrast to later images of a fat, short, dowdy Victoria. Unlike that awful stereotype of a sombre “We-are-not-amused” queen, what we see here is a spirited young monarch in a passionate courtship with her first cousin, Albert, who as the love of her life, became her royal consort. Their intensely physical love becomes the romantic story that is writer Daisy Goodwin’s recreation from her historical research.
Now, a new BBC film, Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) continues that revised view of the historic Victoria – masterfully played by Judi Dench – at the end of her life, when she was bored with court life and her role as Empress of a distant land. At her golden jubilee, Abdul Karim, a young Indian clerk (Ali Fazal), was designated to bring her a gold mohur and strictly instructed, as her servant, never to look directly at Her Majesty. But, as he holds out the tribute, he locks eyes with her, gazing in rapt wonder. At 81, Victoria is unexpectedly smitten by his good looks and his audacious naturalness. To everyone’s shock, she hires him as her private servant, and then, soon promotes him to be her munshi (teacher); it is known that Victoria spoke many languages and now, in her old age, she takes on Urdu.
In the 1997 film Mrs Brown, director John Madden had explored the rumoured scandalous relationship between Queen Victoria and John Brown, a Scottish servant sent by the court to draw the queen out of her isolation after Albert’s death. Playing a younger Queen Victoria then was a younger Dench. In fact, it was her first starring role in the movies and she was nominated for several awards for that performance.
In this new film, too, Dench’s performance is impeccable: she is so deftly made up that she looks the 81 that Victoria is supposed to be, wrinkles and all. She conveys all the hauteur and boredom of the empress. Unlike her earlier relationship with a servant she fell in love with, her relationship with Abdul is platonic. She writes to him five times a day even though he sits just at the end of the corridor. She loves him for being free and frank with her and for bringing her India – through Urdu poetry, Muslim spirituality, chicken curry, dal and pulao – with childlike simplicity. As an empress of faraway India, she longs for that exposure. Everything from the Quran to mangoes intrigues her and she loves his curry so much that it becomes part of the palace’s rotating menu. Her zest for life is suddenly revived by this relationship which kindles her maternal love – she signs her letters, “your loving mother”.
Abdul travels with the queen to Italy, to Scotland, even sharing the intimate space in small, remote cottages in England, alone with her. There – in the Queen’s summer residence on the Isle of Wight – British journalist Shrabani Basu had first discovered their friendship in some paintings – it became the basis of the book on which Victoria and Abdul is based. When Victoria encourages Abdul to bring over his family from India, a burqa-clad wife and mother-in-law land up at court. Concerned that the young Abdul is childless, Victoria has him examined by her own doctors and, even after hearing he’s got gonorrhoea, she is not fazed.
These stories are as true as the outrage she caused among her courtiers and her nine grown children – whom she did not love. None of them could stomach the Queen’s acceptance of a brown-skinned Indian servant who was a Muslim, in such close proximity, one on whom she bestowed unheard-of favours including making him part of her royal household. Her colour-blind acceptance of minorities reminds us of Diana, “princess of the people,” who also scandalised her royal family by rejecting British protocols and first, falling in love with a Pakistani doctor and later, socialising with Dodi Fayad, an Egyptian Muslim.
Abdul remains close to Victoria through her death. Then, unceremoniously deported by Edward, Prince of Wales, after years of service, he retires with a valuable legacy of land in India, bequeathed by his queen. Her letters to him were burned by court officials wishing to obliterate all traces of that hated relationship, but his Urdu correspondence and journals, recently unearthed in India has been mined by Basu for the book. Beautifully produced, this period film is visually breathtaking: all the paraphernalia of the Raj is here.
But the British press has not been kind to the film. With characteristic political correctness, they have found the film nostalgic: they feel it is talking down to Indians, to Muslims and that it is exploitative. The media in the US, with no connection to the Empire, has been kinder: they have enjoyed Dench – hugely popular in the US – and the dark and sexy newcomer Ali Fazal. US’s love affair with British royalty continues apace. And young Victoria, popularised by the TV series, seen here at the other end of her life, still inspires so much interest it will return for a second season due to public demand.
Vibhuti Patel is a journalist based in New York