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

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