'Victoria & Abdul' Explores Colonialism And Islamophobia During Queen's Reign

Sep 22, 2017
Originally published on September 22, 2017 7:08 pm
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The new movie "Victoria And Abdul" traces the close friendship between Queen Victoria, played by Judi Dench, and a handsome, young Indian. It's based on a true story which caused a huge upheaval in Victoria's court. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team talked with the writer who unearthed the story and the young actor who plays Abdul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The year was 1887. One of the many celebrations to mark Victoria's 50 years on the British throne was the presentation of a ceremonial gold coin. It was born on a pillow by two Indian servants, homage to the Queen's title as the empress of India.

SHRABANI BASU: They were dressed up in these wonderful clothes and turbans and, you know, lovely red outfits.

BATES: Shrabani Basu wrote the book "Victoria & Abdul" on which the movie is based.

BASU: And their job was to just stand behind her at table, looking grand and sort of representing Indian Empire.

BATES: But one of the Indians, 24-year-old Abdul Karim, becomes Victoria's favorite. When he quotes the Quran to her on the value of service, the queen is surprised.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICTORIA AND ABDUL")

JUDI DENCH: (As Queen Victoria) I thought you were Hindu.

ALI FAZAL: (As Abdul Karim) I am a Muslim, your majesty. I learned the Quran from my father. He's my munshi.

DENCH: (As Queen Victoria) Munshi.

FAZAL: (As Abdul Karim) Yes, munshi - my teacher.

DENCH: (As Queen Victoria) Well, we would like you to be the queen's munshi.

FAZAL: (As Abdul Karim) But I'm only a servant, your majesty. A servant cannot be a munshi.

BATES: On the spot she makes Abdul her teacher. Her court was not pleased. Ali Fazal, the Bollywood star who plays Abdul Karim, is Muslim. He says the Islamophobia in this story is familiar.

FAZAL: It kind of resonates with what's happening today. It's not very different. The costumes have changed, but I think it fits in many ways.

BATES: The prejudice against Abdul came not only from the munshi's religion but from his humble background, says Shrabani Basu.

BASU: They hated him because, A, he was - of course he was an Indian. It's a subject race, and she's put him at the heart of the court. Secondly, he's a commoner. He's not even a prince. He is being given the same treatment as, you know, members of the household who are all the aristocracy.

BATES: Ali Fazal says Abdul recognized Victoria's humanity and loneliness.

FAZAL: He saw something which was I guess past race and past culture and past all those royal protocols and costume.

BATES: Abdul assumed others would see him as a fellow human, too. But when the munshi has the temerity to address his fellow courtiers as equals, they ignore him. Victoria intervenes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICTORIA AND ABDUL")

DENCH: (As Queen Victoria) Repeat after me. I will be courteous to the munshi. Bertie, all of you - I will be courteous to the munshi.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) I will be courteous to the munshi.

DENCH: (As Queen Victoria) Again.

BATES: Ali Fazal believe some of the court's hostility came from the fact that the courtiers had never interacted with a peer who didn't look or sound like them.

FAZAL: You know, the moment you get insecure, you start to look at the other person and find these faults, you know, and say, oh, you know, you're lesser, and you're not qualified for this job because you're from that side of the world.

BATES: It was a side of the world Victoria was desperate to experience. But her advisers forbad it. Shrabani Basu says they worried anti-colonial nationalists would assassinate her.

BASU: She'd never been to India. She longed to know about India. So in a way, you know, India came to her in the form of Abdul Karim.

BATES: The munshi was hard to overlook. He was tall and brown and regally dressed in turbans and tunics embroidered with the Queen's crest. Basu says he became a familiar sight in England and a celebrity in his own right.

BASU: As her teacher, he was profiled in several newspapers not just in England but also in France and Germany. The newspaper reports say that, you know, all the Muslims from Britain would all travel to this mosque to see the munshi because he was such an important person.

BATES: That kind of attention would eventually undo Abdul Karim. He was accused of meddling in Anglo-Indian affairs, but investigations turned up nothing. Victoria remained his most staunch defender until her death. After her death, though, he could not be protected. Again, Shrabani Basu...

BASU: Within hours of her funeral, the new king, Edward VII, Bertie, who hated the munshi - he orders a raid on the house, and all the letters that Victoria wrote to him was seized, and they were burned outside the house in a bonfire.

BATES: The history of that friendship remained largely hidden from subsequent generations until now. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.