But Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), the 20-something Indian clerk bundled off from Agra to present her with a ceremonial mohar, is much too agog about being in Her Majesty’s presence to notice her clumsy table manners or drool at the luscious looking menu.
Strictly warned against making eye contact, he does exactly that and furthermore plants a reverential kiss on her feet.
Both floored and flattered, the sexagenarian sovereign takes an instant liking to her handsome ‘Hindoo’ import. That ‘Hindoo’ is not the same as Hindi, Muslim or Indian eventually dawns upon her, but the embarrassment is downplayed with whatever’s the royal equivalent of a typically ‘aw shucks’ sentiment.
Predictably, her stuck-up courtiers and uppity son are none too pleased. Their almost comical resistance to this briskly blossoming equation forms the crux of Victoria & Abdul.
The year is 1887 and the Queen appears dulled by the monotony of aristocratic engagements and unresponsive to the responsibilities of reigning over three fourths of the globe. Unwilling to move past her late husband Prince Albert and departed friend John Brown’s memories, she grieves away in the gloomiest shade of black.
As unsociable and inconsolable as she is, the Empress is also a woman of immense passion and appetite. Turning a deaf ear to the doctor’s (a marvellous Paul Higgins) suggestion of the ‘royal colon’ needing ‘more roughage’, her face lights up at the sight of jelly and a description of the mango — the Queen of fruits.
What she seeks is the stimulating company of a suave storyteller and Abdul’s intriguing knowledge of carpets, mangoes, garam masala and the Taj Mahal fits the role to the T. In exchange of his gyaan and Urdu lessons, she promotes him from servant to munshi, sort of an honorific title providing credibility to the privileges he enjoys.
Curiously, Abdul has no objection in accepting his accomplice from India (an excellent Adeel Akhtar) as his servant once he becomes a person of rank.
Directed by Stephen Frears, the costume drama serves as an unofficial companion piece to Mrs Brown — John Madden’s 2007 film exploring the Queen’s frowned-upon friendship with her Scottish attendant — but relies too heavily on Dame Judi Dench reprising her role of the crowned head to accomplish little else.
The 82-year-old English actress humanises the frumpy, myopic and overindulged Queen Victoria into something of a fantasy figure propagating progressive ideals and cultural consciousness, even if it contradicts the squeamish imagery of the ‘Victorian’ age. The screen feels the warmth of her enthusiasm as she lisps in Hindi “Aaj kal Agra main mausham kaisa hai?” with the zeal of a teacher’s pet.
There are occasions when her ignorance over the enormity of the British Empire or the origins of Kohinoor, until then just another diamond she ordered to be cut down in size because it wasn’t shiny enough, beg to be taken with a pinch of salt and confirm its ‘Based on real events… mostly‘ disclaimer.
Despite the exclusive finery and brocade he drapes himself in, there’s nothing dazzling about Ali Fazal’s meek, fawning portrayal of an individual whose charisma and insights influenced the second longest-reigning British monarch. At best, he’s an easy-on-the-eyes opportunist, happy to go along with the film’s orientalist fixation.
An adaptation of Shrabani Basu’s book, Victoria & Abdul doesn’t rise above glossy historical fluff that zigzags between drama and comedy. Its lenient exposition of Britain’s intense imperialism and still milder appeal for anti-racism lacks the ambition to deem it as a work of social value.
What it packs with significance is a leading lady whose authority in cinema few can hold candle to. And it’s to her credit that even the most dubious figures of history can boast of a heart.