TIFF17 | The Queen Finds an Indian Companion in Victoria & Abdul

Over the past decade, Stephen Frears, one of Britain’s most celebrated directors, has made it his speciality to tell the stories of spirited septuagenarian women in critically acclaimed flicks such as The Queen, Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins.

Frears newest epic offering Victoria & Abdul, shares an intimate, behind-the-scenes tour of Queen Victoria’s staterooms in 19th-century England. Dame Judi Dench brilliantly takes on the role of the lonely monarch as she lives out the last years of her reign.

The film beautifully recounts the fascinating and true tale of a penniless Indian man, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who finds himself an unlikely companion to the world’s most powerful woman. Chosen to present a ceremonial coin on behalf of British ruled India to the Queen as part of her Golden Jubilee in 1887, Abdul travels from his home (at the footsteps of the Taj Mahal in Agra), to London. After fumbling through the simple task of delivering a coin to her Highness, Victoria becomes smitten with the tall man in the turban (who her ignorant staff refer to as “the Hindu.”) To the shock of her staff and family, Victoria requests that Abdul stay on as her Munshi (spiritual advisor). He serves the Queen by teaching her his native Urdu while delighting her with tales of exotic foods such as fragrant masala and juicy mango (both of which she’s never heard of yet alone tasted).

Victoria & Abdul is filled with the perfect amount of pomp and panache that royal revellers crave. And while the historical sets and elaborate costuming are sure to satisfy history buffs, its the films themes of xenophobia, racism, islamophobia, sexism and agism which make this dated drama eerily relevant today.

The films serious subject matter is livened with plenty of laughs which showcase how easily cultures can clash. In one particularly hilarious moment Abdul is tasked at delivering a jiggling jelly on a sliver platter to the Queen. When his Indian companion discovers the decadent dish is prepared with cow bone they mutter in horror, “disgusting.”

Abdul’s rag to riches tale is most fascinating because it was certainly ahead of its time. The Queen’s fascination with Indian culture has her bestowing special privileges on Abdul to the shock and protest of her closest allies within Buckingham Palace. During a time when the royal court was white as snow, Abdul is quickly observed as a threat, especially once the Queen sends for his mother and wife, who arrive to London dressed in black burqa’s.

Victoria & Abdul offers a heart-warming take on the princess and the pauper tale while reminding us that society’s expectations for a women of a certain age and the trustworthiness of man with brown skin are regularly misplaced.

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