Genre: Historical Drama
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith, Olivia Williams
Have you ever been on the receiving end of an utterly tragic fake smile? Or, do you remember, with creeping shame, having given one yourself? No matter who you are – the grinning buffoon or the incredulous spectator – in this scenario, there can be no winners, only endless shame. It is an act of mutual deception, with both parties trying, and failing spectacularly at the most basic levels of human interaction. Once initiated, there is little a person can do but nod quietly, avoid making eye contact, and after entertaining a few judgmental thoughts, carry on with their insignificant life.
Victoria & Abdul, it pains me to report, is the cinematic equivalent of a fake smile. It bounds up at you, elbowing others out of its way, exuding a false sense of cheer. Obnoxiously, it slaps you on the back, barks some nonsense about the good old days, and laughs loudly at its own jokes. But behind those sparkling white teeth, there is a snake’s tongue. Beneath that immaculate exterior, there lies a bitter heart.
On the surface, Victoria & Abdul is the charming true story of the Queen’s unlikely friendship with an Indian servant, and how this friendship stirred tremendous jealousy among her closest aides. But behind every look of slavish adoration, behind every act of self-sacrifice, behind every scoffing display of ignorance and behind every entitled, narcissistic demand – there is centuries of subtext; of oppression, murder, and the deeply flawed belief that one sort of human being is better than the other.
And this horrid miscalculation is apparent from the very first scene. Abdul, a man who spends his days performing the most menial of tasks for a government that is not his, is selected on a whim and sent to England – two months away by boat – to present Queen Victoria with a piece of gold that does not belong to her. He will enter the dining hall quietly, present the ‘mohar’ as a token of appreciation for killing thousands of his countrymen, and looting his country so mercilessly, that it would never be able to recover – and then, he will back out of the room, under no circumstances looking the Queen directly in the eye.
But this is not how the movie sees it. There are always two sides to history, it is said. It is also said that history is written by the victor.
And not only does Victoria & Abdul blindly ignore history, and the very real, (and very extensively documented) horrors of British colonialism, it does so with such carelessness that Abdul – who, for all we know, might have been a very nice man – comes across like Samuel L Jackson’s turncoat character from ‘Django Unchained’.
In he trots, dressed in tailor-made clothes, teaching the Queen to write lies about herself in Urdu, serving her jelly and sandwiches, kissing her feet – while his people die of poverty and hunger back home.
Before watching it, the only real fear I had was that the film would make the same mistakes as Gurinder Chadha’s monumentally misjudged ‘Viceroy’s House’, a film that reduced the Independence struggle to an episode of ‘Downton Abbey’. But boy, does ‘Victoria & Abdul’ lower the bar. At least ‘Viceroy’s House’ had the decency to know what sort of film it was.
The blame, as it should, rests squarely on the shoulders of director Stephen Frears, who, in my opinion, directs too many films. And not in the adorable way that Woody Allen – at least his movies are unmistakably his – but in a way that either produces legitimate brilliance (such as Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen, and Philomena), and utterly baffling stuff (this, and the weird Lance Armstrong “shit” that no one saw).
Presented with the opportunity to make intelligent statements about the controversial practices of the British Raj and class divide – which is, even today, a source of great embarrassment for both our countries – Frears’ film, instead, chooses to make a dick joke.
Perhaps I am reading too much into it. Perhaps it was always meant to be a harmless piece of fluff. Certainly, Judi Dench (who interestingly played the same character in another film based on an eerily similar premise) still commands the presence most A-list Hollywood stars would overthrow governments for. And against all odds, Ali Fazal delivers (at least partially) a restrained performance, in a film that pretends the word doesn’t exist.
But don’t let that fool you. Don’t be taken in by the cuteness of Queen Victoria speaking in broken Hindi, and don’t fall for a dreamy-eyed Ali Fazal reciting the decadent history of the Taj Mahal. ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is a shameful attempt to normalise evil.