In 2016, a YouGov poll showed that 44 per cent of British people were proud of the British Empire, while only 21 per cent regretted that it had ever happened. The rest 23 per cent held neither view. The same poll also asked whether the British Empire was a good thing or bad: 43 per cent said it was good, while only 19 per cent said that it was bad. 25 per cent responded that it was neither.
It is quite clear that Stephen Frears, one of the most influential people in the British cultural landscape, belongs to the majority section in both the polls. His new directorial venture, Victoria & Abdul is a glorious reflection of the post-colonial melancholy that seem to envelop the residents of the UK, including migrants like Gurinder Chadha.
Frears’ film is based on the non-fiction book by Shrabani Basu, that chronicles the real-life friendship between Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim servant. This film is a quasi companion piece to the 1997 film Mrs Brown (directed by John Madden) in which the Queen was younger, coming to terms with the sudden death of her husband and how a Scottish servant brings her back to life. In Victoria & Abdul, the queen is past the days of physical strength, and is at the tail end of her life. She snores during meals, is terribly cranky, and is almost warped into her own self. This time, an Indian servant comes to her aid, and she sprints back to jolly good mood.
When Judi Dench plays British royalty, she seems like she was born into it. After Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love and Victoria in Mrs Brown, she again displays what a mighty talent she is. Despite a harsh exterior, the way she brings vulnerability and quirk on a wrinkled face, it’s not difficult to be wonderstruck.
But what was the strength of Mrs Brown, is essentially one of the failings of this film. While Madden built John Brown with a certain multidimensional lens, Frears’ film sculpts Abdul (Ali Fazal) with zero depth. He smiles, and prances around like an exotic pet from a far-flung country. He becomes the catalyst for the Queen to gain spiritual mysticism from the East, and that’s his only function. His wife and mother, brought to England by the Queen, are given no dialogues. His two-dimensionality is only about Taj Mahal, Urdu, carpets and the quality of a mango.
But the biggest crime of the film (mind you, it’s endless) is its deliberate whitewashing of the British colonial rule. From its very beginning, it brings a certain nostalgic lens into play. Abdul, when brought into the country, can’t believe his luck and literally kisses the feet of the monarch. If the Queen keeps on reminding people that she is the Empress of India, Abdul keeps reminding her how fortunate he is to be here, serving her majesty, in this great country.
The era in which the film is set, British Raj is already many decades old. But the Queen is absolved of all crimes of her rule, for she is completely naive about the barbaric realities of the colonial rule. Her character is that of only a monarch who is surrounded by racists and classists, who can’t stand her friendship with a lowlife. She is just amusing and kind.
What does Abdul think about the colonial rule? He, too, seems to be oblivious to the horrors of the British Raj. Not only does he refrain from speaking about the subjugation by his white masters in India, he doesn’t seem to flinch when his fellow servant Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) dies the miserable death of a captive slave. He is just too delighted to have the great privilege of serving these glorious people.
The closing scene of the film in which Abdul, back in India, kisses the statue of the monarch with the Taj Mahal in the backdrop, cements the poisonous streak of the film.
Frears keeps glossing over crimes of the British Empire in favour of a sentimental feel-good film, to make people wistful about the days of yore, when his great ancestors ruled the world. If Frears, supposedly one of the enlightened living beings in British culture, feels proud about the crimes of his forefathers, it speaks a great deal about the failure of education in race-lore.
This is the kind of denial that deserves a tight smack on its honoured face.
(The writer is a journalist and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @nikhil_anand_ )