It’s a love story of a different kind. And one that might not have surfaced, had it not been for the keen observations of a curious investigative writer.
When Shrabani Basu noticed a portrait of an Indian servant hanging in the Queen’s summer palace, she wondered. Who was this picture of Hafiz Mohammed Abdul Karim – aka Abdul? Her instincts and research lead her on an adventure that culminated in a book and the newly released movie, Queen Victoria and Abdul.
Produced by BBC and Working Title Films, Victoria and Abdul is about this unusual friendship. The British Royal family tried to keep it secret, but Queen Victoria’s true character won out. Various clues, a few letters and a diary kept by Abdul presented Victoria in a new light. She is a much richer figure and a welcome change from the stalwart, grieving widow of King Albert.
Queen Victoria’s Past
What is most revolutionary about Victoria’s friendship with Abdul is how it challenged royal conventions and expectations. During the Victorian age, royals looked down on lower social classes and foreigners. This prejudice is not a surprise and it continues to plague even the current monarchy. Lady Diana’s effect on Queen Elizabeth II’s rule exemplifies this point. Showing empathy towards her British subjects remains a constant challenge for the current monarch.
In this light, Victoria’s friendship makes her a more endearing queen; even though the movie admittedly bends some of the facts. Magic happens when we can turn the kaleidoscopic lens of history. The costuming, music and subtle comedic beats in the movie underscore the dramatic retelling of a period in Victoria’s past. As well, they raise some questions that were kept secret from the public.
To understand the effect of Abdul’s friendship with the Queen, we need to understand her past. You see, Victoria ascended to the throne as the only child of Prince Edward, the fourth son of King George III and German Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Her childhood was lonely and miserable. She was born in Kensington Palace and shared a bedroom with her mother until she became queen at just eighteen years of age. Can you imagine?
Victoria would go on to rule for sixty-three years (from 1837-1901), but her time was marked by constant British expansionism and rising colonial tensions and warfare. England had become a global superpower and dominated India for three centuries. Controls established by the East India Trading Company (and later Parliament) were brutal. As a result, Victoria saw the worst of the world and came to see war as inevitable.
A diminutive figure standing at only five feet tall, Victoria’s demeanor was serious and highly unattractive. She was not popular, especially after the death of her husband Albert in 1861. The grief from Albert’s death added to her public disapproval when she went into seclusion for several years. Her mother’s death ten months earlier and the passing of her second daughter (one of nine children) two years later, compounded her grief.
Ironically, her daughter Alice died on the anniversary of Albert’s death in 1778 but even this didn’t elicit much sympathy. Victoria continued in her royal duties, but people wanted to see their queen. When she erected a monument to Albert in the Kensington Palace Gardens and six assassinations attempts were made on her life, Victoria started to come round.
Victoria Challenges Prevailing Social Attitudes
Abdul Karim’s arrival from India to present Victoria with a commemorative medal for her Jubilee celebration in 1887 could not have come at a better time. Abdul’s candor, stories and uncompromising devotion are electric. Victoria (played by actress Judy Dench) is immediately attracted to Abdul (played by Ali Fazal), and their friendship grows over the next fifteen years until her death.
But when Victoria elevates Abdul, her Indian Muslim Mushy (meaning teacher) to a household position with higher privileges, the household and members of the royal family are enraged. Even though the relationship is platonic (Abdul is married and his wife stays with him), Victoria challenges prevailing norms and attitudes about class structure and people of color.
Her family threatens to remove her from the throne and history tells us she responded with her own, suggesting she might abdicate. Ultimately, Victoria’s friendship with Abdul helps her to overcome what she thinks the people see: “I am grossly overweight and a ruler who has lost touch. I am good with numbers but have nine horrible children who are an embarrassment, as they selfishly vie for my power. What’s the point in living?”
Love rescues Victoria, but it is the rich love of friendship. Abdul helps Victoria to find meaning in life by igniting a sense of fascination and interest in the world. He adores her and fills her with confidence and curiosity. Victoria begins to understand the India that Britain rules and to appreciate its beautiful language, spices, and landscape through Abdul’s eyes.
As Victoria learns to appreciate the larger totality of what it means to live, Abdul shares some of Rumi’s poems with her. This Persian poet imbues Victoria with a sense of relief. She is freed from her loneliness and worry about what lies ahead:
Love is the whole thing.
We are only pieces.
Love is the sea of no end.
We are a drop of it…
After Victoria’s death, most of the letters she exchanged with Abdul and any hint of their relationship were destroyed by Victoria’s eldest son, King Edward VII. But Abdul’s nephew secretly hid a diary that Abdul had kept while working for the Queen. This diary surfaced in 2010, generations after Abdul passed away in 1909, and helped Basu to write her story.
Even though Victoria’s death is sad and Abdul is forced to leave Britain after her funeral at Windsor Castle (memorial of Victoria above), the movie is uplifting. We know Victoria learned to speak Hindustani and Urdu, and she enjoyed “wide-ranging—philosophical, political and practical. Both her head and heart were engaged.” Britain would fall into the first of two horrible world wars a decade after Victoria’s death. India would achieve its independence in 1947. But what remained in a sea with no end, was the love and admiration between Victoria and Abdul. They were two pieces that couldn’t be more different and more fitting.