I am very tired of movies that suggest British Colonialism was any kind of a good thing. Or that the “native savages” were grateful for their white rulers. So I had no intention of seeing this. But Mum chickened out of seeing IT so we agreed on Victoria and Abdul instead. I’m glad we did.
Does it celebrate colonialism? Yes, I think it does. Does it portray the Indian characters as grateful to their white masters? Well, in the case of the central character Abdul, yes. But it does both in such a self-aware and funny way that I think the film-makers knew exactly what they were doing.
For about two thirds of the film, this is a comedy. The opening tells us the story is based on fact “mostly”, a disclaimer that sets the tone for what follows. Abdul is a clerk in an Indian prison, sent to London to take part in Victoria’s jubilee celebrations not for any personal merit but because he is tall. For some reason, the aged queen takes an interest in him and Abdul, totally clueless about protocol, treats her as a human being instead of the queen. Naturally, the lonely old woman finds this enchanting.
Abdul’s antics never veer into the ridiculous; that is reserved for the white courtiers who scurry around first trying to figure out what Victoria sees in her Indian pet and later desperately seeking ways to undermine him in her affections. The racism is obvious without being malicious: a moment when a man does the usual English-speaker thing of repeating himself ever louder as he assumes Abdul has no English, when in fact it’s he who is speaking nonsense. Then there’s the fact that everyone refers to Muslim Abdul and his companion, Mohamed, as “the Hindus”. Abdul’s occasional obsequiousness is contrasted with Mohamed, who hates the cold of England, has no fondness for the conquering whites and only wants to go home.
But that self awareness and very British humour permeates the story and things never get too serious. Until they do. There is a moment when the laughter stops, when a misunderstanding is revealed and it’s impact is all the greater because a moment before, we were laughing. This is the movie’s turning point. There are light moments in what follows but the stakes have become more real, the racism sharper, the light now illuminates the dark. It’s a fantastic switcheroo and for me it really makes the film something else as we close in on an ending as shocking as it was inevitable.
Judi Dench is note-perfect as always, but it’s Ali Fazal whose perfect comic timing, willingness to play the cliche and affecting performance when the script calls for it that is the revelation here. Give that man a BAFTA, at the very least.
I can’t say how a non-white viewer might see the film. I don’t know if the portrayals might come across as patronising or racist. But I thought it was closer to a satire of such portrayals. Not always successful, but with its heart in the right place.