Written by Manisha Lakhe
The Two Are Delightful, The Film Isn’t.
The story of an unlikely friendship between Abdul Kareem, a clerk from India and Queen Victoria is fascinating because his diaries were discovered recently and give us a glimpse on her stubborn resolve to learn Hindi and Urdu and his strange devotion to her. Judi Dench and Al Fazal make the friendship look easy in its defiance of the Queen’s courtiers who just hate Kareem’s influence on the Queen.
The Hindoos Are Here!
Just as India has Anglophiles, the British probably did have just as much fascination (Exotic India is still being written about!) for India. After all, they found cotton, indigo, spices and gold and jewels in India. They ruled India for 200 years and it was during the Queen’s Jubilee year (1887) that someone at court had a bright idea of issuing a commemorative gold mohur in honor of the Queen. To give it a fitting setting, a tall clerk in Agra’s prison was chosen to travel to England to present the Queen with the mohur at one of the banquets. The Clerk, Abdul Kareem (played with wide-eyed wonder by Ali Fazal) finds himself fascinated by the Empress and the Empress (the brilliant Judi Dench) finds joy in this obvious adulation and soon a deep friendship develops between the two.
As unlikely as the friendship may be, the subject makes for a fascinating film with the fawning courtiers and the Prince who begin to hate the audacity of someone who should have been a compliant slave.
Judi Dench Is Marvelous
Yes, you cringe when you watch Ali Fazal kiss the feet of the Empress breaking protocol (he’s supposed to never look her in the eye, just present the coin and leave without turning his back to her), but you see a sparkle in the bored queen’s eyes and you know Judi Dench is better Queen than the real Queen could ever be.
When you see the dressing ladies wake her up, lift her like some marionette and dress her as her secretary reads out her schedule, you sorry for the ageing Queen. So the devotion the ‘Hindoo’ shows her makes for a joyful interaction. Plus he speaks English with such an interesting way, telling her about how the bird woven in the carpet is imprisoned forever in the weave or how after death you go to a great hall of eternal bliss…
Judi Dench is so amazing that you can actually see her resolve turn into steel. You see the friendship turning a bored, fat monarch turn into a Queen who orders a Durbar Room created for her, a Queen who begins to take interest in the day to day things (thereby creating ripples among her complacent courtiers) and begin to learn Urdu and Hindi from the ordinary clerk.
Judi Dench has played the Queen before in ‘Her Majesty, Mrs Brown’ where another ‘servant’ John Brown from the highlands (Billy Connolly) who drags her out of mourning after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. The story has many parallels with this film and ends with the death of the Queen instead of Mr Brown.
Ali Fazal’s Curious Devotion
As audience you cringe when the young clerk literally kisses the Queen’s feet, especially because the film is set 30 years after the 1857 mutiny. It is doubtful that a 24 year old was not unaffected by the stories of defiance against the British. But then there are accounts of strange servility, so his initial devotion seems more fascination than servility. The language he uses is odd and that makes the conversation between him and the Queen rather fun.
The Rest Of The Film
The courtiers, the prime minister, the royal physician, Prince Bertie (who inherits her as Edward vii) and even the other Indian are all such cardboard cutouts, you can actually bunch them as one annoyed mass who spy on the Queen when she’s interacting with her ‘Munshi’. Their plotting and planning seems to be like that you have seen in high school plays.
The interiors of the palace look like a set rather than real, but the outdoor locations are stunning.
Abdul Kareem’s wife and mother-in-law are dressed in this Talibanesque black burkhas which seem rather strange. And why does she have to be so extra large? I watched with as much fascination and curiosity as the Queen had when she watched Mrs Kareem unveil. And even though you want the movie to be authentic (maybe she was large in real life), you wish she would look like Deepika Padukone instead (no disrespect meant to the actor who plays Mrs Kareem).
Yes, the rest of the film is blah. But watch it because you love Judi Dench.