Mumbai, India (BBN) – In her dotage, Victoria, still the reigning Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Empress of India, is in solitude a lonely woman.
Bearing the weight of the bejewelled crown for over six decades, she has seen the death of everyone she loved and has ever cared for, reports The Hindu.
Sitting at the head of a long table of dignitaries, she eats her meal in irreverence for the typical mannerisms of a royalty. The novelty and adrenaline of power has long worn off, and death refuses to knock her door.
At the centre of Victoria & Abdul is this woman. She expects no companionship, yet finds solidarity in an Indian man, much younger to her, whose perspectives on life infuse meaning into her own. She declares him to be her munshi, her teacher.
Stephen Frears’ film is based on this true story. Or ‘mostly’, as the screen reads at the beginning of the movie. If the filmmaker was at the liberty to pick parts of the actual events, he should have limited himself to exploration of the unexpected friendship between the two protagonists.
The problem arises when the film delves into the unacceptable aspect of this friendship, taking the story into dark alleyways of racism, post-colonial guilt and exoticism of the Orient.
The film, in its hurry to absolve Queen Victoria of any racial discrimination and glorify her as a wise and woke Empress, skims through crucial moments that lay the foundation for Victoria and Abdul’s relationship.
Their interaction is bereft of life-altering conversations, as one would expect. Instead all you get are quick stereotypes and clichés, which make Abdul seem like a guide taking a white lady around Chandi Chowk.
As for the Orient, you are dished out representative images of bazaars in Agra and the Taj Mahal. Abdul’s words of wisdom are reminiscent of a fortune teller in a small-town mela. The rest of the British cast spews lines like, “He’s teaching her Hindu”. To which another responds, “No, it’s Urdu, the Muslim version”. Abdul in England is an oddity, we get it. But the film often pushes the point to a cringeworthy extent.
Frears – who has previously dealt with both, the royalty and Judi Dench, in The Queen (2006) and Philomena (2013) respectively – lends Victoria a sense dignity in quietude. Dench is unguarded and evocative, especially when she breaks down in Abdul’s company.
She makes even the most stoic characters vulnerable. Ali Fazal as Abdul is visibly unable to reciprocate to Dench’s artistry. He masks his emotions behind perpetual smiles and feigns sincerity.
In this lush and sanitised period drama, humour is what works best. For a story centred around the emotional interdependence of two people, moments of laughter, sorrow, longing, loneliness, empathy, wisdom and affection are paramount. Instead of attempting a political saga with very little historical evidence to bank on, had the film been about the mutual discovery and separation of two individuals, Frears would’ve walked away with a film both heartening and heartbreaking.