I remember growing up my mom used to love to watch anything that had to do with “the Royals” she said. She adored anything about the British royal court, or European royal life in general, for a short time she subscribed to Royals Magazine. She loved to say the good silverware was only put out when (if) the Queen visited. Sadly, the Queen never stopped by our 3-bedroom rambler in Marysville, Washington, but my mother’s fascination of the royal family has never ceased. She (as many do) finds something romantic and exotic about the pomp and circumstance, the high-profile drama, the idea of living in a castle, wearing crowns, the traditions and history of a ruling family.
The movie Victoria & Abdul has all the things my mother would love but at it’s heart is a very sweet love story about two people who found a truthful connection despite all odds. It tells the story of the amazing and unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a young clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who becomes her teacher, her spiritual advisor, and her devoted friend.
The movie Victoria & Abdul is a lush, beautiful film. It has gorgeous scenery, impeccably detailed costumes, and recreates the look of Victorian Era royal life amazingly. One of the opening scenes is at a banquet for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in 1887. This scene is set in a cavernous banquet hall, adorned in gold detail, all of the attendees are in voluminous dresses and glittering medals, and there is quite the choreographed feat of hundreds of royal waiters in sync fetching dishes from the kitchens, places plates perfectly in time, not a foot out of step. Eventually director (Academy Award nominated Stephen Frears) pulls the camera in and spends the majority of this scene focused on the face of Queen Victoria as she tears into her food just to seemingly “get through” the dinner. You start to see every line on her face, her sunken in eyes that don’t focus on anything, she is clearly bored by the routine, the etiquette, the pomp and circumstance that her life has become. In Frears’ words, she is a ‘prisoner of convention, like most of us become’.
It is in this scene that the two main characters meet, as Abdul has been sent from India to present a ceremonial medal to the Queen. He breaks the convention and looks her in the eye, and even dares to smile at her. This simple act of provides the spark that forges a connection between the two, and form an endearing and eventually intimate friendship.
While Queen Victoria is played by Dame Judi Dench (this would be the second time she plays Queen Victoria, she plays her in Mrs. Brown in 1997), there was a large casting call conducted in India to find Abdul, and the role eventually went to Bollywood actor Ali Fazal. I was lucky enough to meet and interview Mr. Fazal about working with Judi Dench on this film.
“The first time I met her, I had my little fan moment, it was literally like an Indian arranged-marriage setting. We were set up at this little restaurant, very picturesque, in London, and she just gives me the warmest hug. It just became so easy after that. She has a great sense of humor.”
He goes on to say, “Stephen (Frears) never kept formal rehearsals, so for me and Judy we would just run around set trying to find some time, jump in a van, sit and do our lines, and I would teach her some Urdu, she would teach me some Shakespeare.”
The way this (true) story was discovered is a fascinating tale unto itself. Journalist Shrabani Basu was researching a book on the history of curry in 2001, and visited the Osborne House, one of Queen Victoria’s residences, and saw two portraits and a bronze bust of a regal-looking Indian man. Through research she found out this man was Abdul Karim, and discovered he was the Queen’s Munshi (i.e. teacher). Unfortunately the Queen’s son Bertie, later King Edward VII (played in the film by Eddie Izzard) had destroyed all correspondence between his mother and the Munshi, but did not touch her Hindustani journals. This discovery inspired Ali but also provided challenges for his performance.
“Because when they destroyed the stuff, they didn’t know what Urdu was, they thought it was gibberish. She went to Windsor Castle, she said, could I have a look at her Urdu journal, she thought there’d be one journal. They brought in a trolley of 13 volumes, I get goosebumps, it’s all in her handwriting. It automatically just leaps out and says, this is clearly a little more than just a teacher and student. As you get older, your capability gets worse, but for this woman everything reversed. I’ve seen her letters. It’s her handwriting, The Urdu letter, and the English one, impeccable English, the Urdu was written by Victoria and the English was him. I thought it was harder to match his English handwriting then the Urdu.”
The film Victoria & Abdul tells a beautiful story that is a small peek inside the life of one of the longest reigning monarchs in Britain and a friendship that reawakens something in the Queen. Ali told of “Something beautiful Judy says is that if you have the capacity to love, it will not end.” The film touches on some of the dark side and ugliness of what the friendship brought out in royal staff and family, but also a nice amount of wit and sense of humor along the way.
When we asked what Ali Fazal wanted people to take away from this film, he said, “Love and hope are the take-aways. We’ve tried war and politics all these years, 130 years later, not much has changed, costumes have changed. I hope they take love. Two people from opposite sides of the spectrum come in and are able to talk to each other and see thru the ruse, the clothes, the etiquette. There is hope for progress.”
Victoria & Abdul opens nationwide Friday, September 29th.