Victoria and Abdul
Twenty-four-year-old Abdul Karim arrived in Britain in 1887 as a ‘gift from India’, to serve Queen Victoria on the occasion of her golden jubilee. Within a year of his arrival, he had become Victoria’s munshi (teacher), instructing her in Hindustani and Indian affairs. Their friendship blossomed, to the horror of her family, and now the story has been transformed into a new film – Victoria and Abdul. Alice Barnes-Brown spoke to actor Ali Fazal to find out what it was like to play a character who has since been erased from history.
Q Why do you think Victoria took such a shine to Abdul, so quickly?
AHe talked to her like a human, and not under protocol. He looked at her as one human would look at another, and that’s what I think was really attractive for her. I think she was just sick of people agreeing with her the whole time, being nice to her, and just being British!
Q What did you find most fascinating from your research about Abdul?
AYou could see a lot about him from the letters. I think my ‘buy’ into this film was these two letters I saw, one in really well-written Urdu and one in this beautiful English handwriting. The Urdu one was Queen Victoria, and the English one was written by Abdul Karim. It was just role reversal, so ironic. That visual sticks with me.
Q What’s Victoria’s legacy in India?
AWell, we’ve had a rough couple of centuries. I don’t think Victoria is the most hailed celebrity back in India. Even today you see these wonderful black marble statues of her just lying about, they’ve been taken down and thrown away. I guess rightly so, I don’t blame them because we’ve all been through a lot. We’re still in shambles, so there is that resentment.
Q Is that reflected in the film?
AI like that it doesn’t really glorify British rule, and it gives you a true account of what was happening on both sides. But even in the middle of all that, the Queen and Abdul were just trying to be human about this whole affair, even though their relationship seemed wrong to others. That’s something I hope people see in this film.
Q How did you balance Abdul’s kindness with his ambition?
A Abdul was educated in a madrassa – a bit like home schooling. I think he saw through everything around him, but he also has a sort of innocence, and the ability to love came naturally to him. We’re not born haters, we become haters.
Q What do you hope viewers will learn from your portrayal of Abdul?
A Just a better world view, I guess. I think they need to learn that it’s not a bad thing to climb the ladder of success and be smart about it, be a little manipulative about it. There were a lot of Indians like Abdul working for the British at the time, because that was the government. There wasn’t anything wrong with what Abdul did – everybody was doing it.
In her diary, Victoria wrote of Abdul: “He is so good and gentle and understanding all I want and is a real comfort to me” Ali Fazal as Abdul Stephen Karim in Frears’ new film Judi with Dame Dench as the Queen