Victoria and Abdul

ZEE JLF@The British Library

Stephen Frears in conversation with Shrabani Basu, introduced by Patrick French

ZEE JLF@The British Library is one of the first major events in the UK as part of the UK-India Year of Culture in 2017, which will showcase the cultural diversity of India in the UK.

Shrabani Basu’s Victoria and Abdul: The True Story Of The Queen’s Closest Confidant is based on the previously unknown correspondence between Queen Victoria and her manservant Abdul. Oscar-winning director Stephen Frears is now turning the book into a much-awaited movie starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria.

Both the film and book have at their heart the theme of transformation: Victoria, who as an 18 year old, found herself Queen; and Abdul, an Indian clerk sent to England as a gift for Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, who became a key figure at Windsor Palace. When they met in 1887, Abdul was 24 and Victoria much older. Their relationship changed British foreign policy in India and scandalised contemporary society. It is captured in the astonishing archive of letters and papers that writer and journalist Basu found in the British Library collection, and Abdul’s personal archive and diary discovered with his family in Karachi.

For Basu, Abdul’s role in teaching Urdu to Victoria is proof that the Empress of India embraced India: the colours and tastes, as well as the politics of a country where she had never been. A close relationship with a major age difference, it gave the ‘Widow of Windsor’ a new lease of life. The education of Muslims became a passion for Victoria, who came to regard them as ‘our most loyal citizens,’ and her focus on embracing Indian contemporary politics was a direct result of Abdul’s influence. Victoria was a passionate letter-writer and Abdul’s input, advice and sometime bias can be seen in her correspondence from this time, as well as the dislike of Abdul by her staff and advisers in theirs.

Frears describes a racist court: the Queen’s private secretary, ladies in waiting, and Victoria herself took pleasure in driving her courtiers to distraction. For Frears, only Judy Dench could be Victoria. The role of Abdul was cast in Bombay, in order to ensure authenticity of an Indian coming to England. Eddie Izzard makes a wonderful Bertie/ EdwardVll. Frears’ film begins and ends in Agra, but was filmed in various English castles, including Oswald House: the filmmaker was one of the first people allowed to film there.

Frears’ film highlights how progressive Victoria was but also how ignorant. For Basu, her account, 4 years in the writing, is one of a complex human relationship set against a dramatic period in Indian history. Victoria comes to love India and wants to know the country and its people: it was only the length of journey and risk of assassination that kept her away.

– By Paula Van Hagen

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