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An untold story of unlikely friendship

Graphic+by+Kelly+Smith%2C+19.
Graphic by Kelly Smith, ’19.

Dame Judi Dench in “Victoria and Abdul”


The historical drama film “Victoria and Abdul,” released on Sept. 22, tells the little-known story of Queen Victoria and her friendship with an Indian man, Abdul Karim, in her final years. Judi Dench reprises her role as Queen Victoria, after initially playing the monarch in the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown.”

The movie opens  when Karim, played by Indian actor and Bollywood star Ali Fazal, is chosen to travel to England to present Queen Victoria with an Indian coin for the celebration of her 50th anniversary as monarch. Although Karim was only supposed to stay in England for a few days, his boldness earns him favor with the Queen, and she makes him her personal attendant and teacher.

“Victoria and Abdul” highlights the levels of intolerance and ignorance that were present during the  time period as seen through  the treatment of Karim by the members of the queen’s household. The friendship between Victoria and Karim causes controversy among the queen’s staff and family, who find it improper for her to be close with a man who they consider to be a lower racial and social status.

Although India was a colony of England at one time, the British knew little of the country. This is evident to Karim from his arrival, as everyone calls him “the Hindu,” when he is actually a practicing Muslim. Additionally, when he sees the clothing he must wear to the queen’s ceremony, he says that it is not traditional attire. However, a British official insists the outfit looks “authentically Indian.”

While the members of the household deem Karim as unworthy based on his race and social class, the queen takes interest in him and is eager to learn about his life and culture. In addition to her attendant, Karim becomes her Munshi, or teacher. She requests to learn how to speak and write in Urdu and creates a room in one of her palaces devoted entirely to Indian artifacts. Eventually, she gives Karim his own cottage and invites his family to live there, where they stay until the queen’s death.

The movie tells the heartwarming story of Queen Victoria befriending Karim and making an effort to learn about India, but the historical context is lacking in some respects.

While the film focuses mainly on the personal relationship between Victoria and Karim, it only briefly touches on the conflicts in India at the time. The characters discuss mutiny and violence between Muslims and Hindus, but the audience is called to focus more on how this affects the way that the members of the royal staff treat Karim, not the condition of the Indian state. Additionally, Karim describes India to the queen as a beautiful place with a rich culture, but does not acknowledge the hardships India faces as a result of colonization.

Karim and Victoria’s friendship was largely wiped from British history, as all of the records and correspondence between the two were burned after Victoria’s death on the orders of her son, King Edward II (played here by British comedian Eddie Izzard).

However, journalist Shrabani Basu discovered Karim’s journals and Victoria’s notebooks documenting everything he taught her. Basu wrote about her findings in her book “Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant,” which was published in 2010. The book provided inspiration for the movie, though the film opened with a disclaimer that it is only “mostly” based on a true story.

Despite the film’s flaws, “Victoria and Abdul” gives recognition to an interesting, yet forgotten, figure in history as well as a queen’s attempt to become more open-minded in an environment of intolerance.

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