Victoria & Abdul is a re-telling of the atrocities of the British Empire

By Beatrice Duncan

CW: Colonialism, sexism, racism and SPOILERS!!!!

Last week I went to see ‘Victoria and Abdul’ with my family at my local cinema
It wouldn’t have been my choice of film, but I had an evening off and thought it was a better option than sitting at home in my pyjamas re-watching Gilmore Girls for the 100th time. So, I went along to see it with cautious optimism, hoping that I would be surprised, and would have nothing to dislike about it.

I was naïve.

I studied history at secondary school for 5 years, which included 2 years of GCSE. During that time I learned about a lot of different historical movements and events, a lot of which was understandably from a Anglo-centric standpoint. However, it wasn’t until a few years later that I noticed what should have been a glaringly obvious gap in my curriculum-British colonialism.

Being aware of this , I can see why many people who went to see Victoria and Abdul saw it as simply a light-hearted drama-comedy that didn’t need anything political added to it. Being the killjoy that I am, however, I felt a different way.

Staring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim, the film starts off by admitting that it is only ‘mostly’ based on the true story that inspired it-a book of the same name about the real life relationship between The Queen and Karim. If you haven’t seen the film, watch out as this will very likely contain a lot of spoilers (not that there’s much in this film to be spoiled tbh…)

In a nutshell, the film is about Abdul and his friend Mohammed (played by Adeel Akhtar) who get selected to become servants to Victoria. She takes a liking to Abdul, and he becomes her ‘Munshi’ (an urdu word meaning teacher), teaching her Urdu. Over the course of the film, he is promoted higher up the ranks, and shown to be given many favours and gifts, much to the displeasure of the rest of The Queen’s household and family. And that’s basically it in terms of storyline-it is a tale of unlikely friendship and the apparently most ‘woke’ monarch to have ever lived.

Essentially, ‘Victoria and Abdul’ is no more than propaganda disguised as a family friendly blockbuster; it uses a star-studded cast and clever writing to sugar coat colonialism and the horrors of the British Empire.

In the film, when Victoria first meets the two men she comments: “I thought the tall one was terribly handsome”. In fact, what Victoria really said about Abdul was that he was “much lighter” than Mohammed. There seems to be no reason to brush over this racist part of Victoria’s character than to attempt to make her more likeable and so to force us to feel sorry for her.

Queen Victoria shows no remorse for the terrible things that her empire have done, and uses her power as head of state and Empress of India for pathetic frivolous things, like getting a mango sent for her to try. While her treatment of Adbul was of course very nice, the film almost forces us to forget that she is still leaving his friend and equal Mohammed in a cold attic room to serve her while he gets sicker and sicker due to inclement weather and poor treatment.

The film had an opportunity to be more than just predictable and ‘heart-warming’, and in their defence, they did seem to attempt it. There was acknowledgment of the racism the servants would have faced and how a lot of the household felt about them. In particular, Akhtar’s character Mohammed really excited me. It seemed that he would be able to give us a cold look at the other side of coin. Unfortunately, just like the racism shown by the other characters, he seemed to be there only for comedic relief. Apart from one scene where he delightfully attacks the Queen’s son Bertie and mentions “the stinky, creaking ladder of the shitty British Empire”. I was practically jumping up and down in my seat when this happened, so was expecting the film to show a more negative take on everything after. Instead what happened? They killed him off! (P.S I am well aware that this is what really happened but still). With startling speed, we are suddenly at Mohammed’s funeral, after which he is promptly forgotten about. This character who had so much potential and who died an oppressed British slave was essentially killed by colonialism, and yet he’s never mentioned again. This is a real shame, and harms the potential of the film.

Don’t even get me started on the films treatment of women, which I could write a whole other post about. Karim’s wife and mother-in-law are shipped over to the UK without even a discussion, and we never once hear what they have to say about the relationship and colonialism. I find it hard to believe that Mohammed is the only one who has a problem. We see them in the film for probably a total of 10 seconds, and they seem to have been popped in as an after thought. But that’s a rant for another day.

I’ve spoken to some people who feel I’m reading a bit too much into the film, and in their defence maybe I am. It is true that Victoria treated Karim much better than anyone else would have treated an Indian servant at that time, and Karim does seem to have been very fond of Victoria. However, I think it is massively socially irresponsible to gloss over the political backdrop of this moment in history just to make money at the box-office, particularly one that so few people are even aware of.

At the end of the day, the British Empire was responsible for multiple deaths and atrocities, including triggering two famishes that are thought to have killed 20 million people, a massacre of a peaceful protest where 1,000 people were murdered, and plenty more. The film had an opportunity to highlight this, and educate and inform its audience. Instead, we got a watered down comedy-drama with poorly written 2 dimensional POC characters and a predictable storyline that had me literally rolling my eyes by the end.

And let’s be honest, there’s no way that Queen Victoria was that good at writing Urdu as one of the final scenes tries to convince us…

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