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An unfortunate attempt at reviving history

Roshan Nair, DH News Services, Oct 15 2017, 3:06 IST
A still from the film 'Victoria and Abdul'

A still from the film 'Victoria and Abdul'

Director: Stephen Frears

Film: Victoria and Abdul

Language: English

Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard

Rating: **


Stephen Frears' Victoria and Abdul is an insipid watch and has very little by way of originality. It tells the "real-life story" Abdul Karim, who was shipped off to England to present a memento to Queen Victoria herself.

Victoria and Abdul develop a very unlikely friendship. What the viewer expects of the filmmakers is to explain how this freak twist of history could have taken place. This precisely is what the film does not do.

Judi Dench's formidable talents are put to waste in her second coming as Queen Victoria, the first being in Mrs Brown (1997). While her quiet humour and grumpy portrait as the monarch is what makes the film barely float, Ali Fazal's Abdul tanks gloriously.

The movie begins with the title 'The film is based on real events,' suffixed a second later with '...mostly'. While this tongue-in-cheek gesture seems adorable at first, it does not prepare us for the massive dump the director is about to take on history.

Instead of sketching a nuanced portrait of the relationship between the Queen and her favourite Indian servant — given their backgrounds, it could not have been nuanced — Frears simply makes them adore each other. The film fails to give any reason for the adoration.

In a struggle to find reasons, the film stumbles, and preposterously goes on to make Victoria hold views very progressive for her time. The film also makes her very naive to many basic facts about India, simply so that the "munshi" (as Abdul is appointed her teacher) can teach it to her.

The director imagines Abdul to be a very wise man, but the wisdom he spews so generously makes him sound like a roadside palm reader than a wise man. We are left wondering, like the rest of the regal household, "What does she see in him?"

While Frears wants to tells us that the rest of the royal household wanted Abdul shipped back to India because they were racist, we are convinced that they wanted that only because he was so annoying.

One of the things done right in the movie is the breakfast scene early on. The ridiculously exhaustive breakfast arrangements for her majesty is hilarious, and serves both as brilliant comedy-of-manners and a satire on the milieu.

Despite poor characterisation, Dench's performance as Victoria is brilliant because she knows just when to take the queen seriously and just when to make fun of her. Few other actors could have convincingly rendered why Victoria, who snore so 'un-royally' and fell asleep at breakfast, is still the most frightening presence in the household.

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