‘Victoria and Abdul’, which has been adapted into a film starring Judi Dench, tells the true story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with an Indian servant, Abdul Karim. He became the queen’s ‘munshi’, her teacher, teaching her Urdu and the Qur’an to the chagrin of her English staff. I contacted the author, Shrabani Basu, who kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.
Why do you think Queen Victoria wanted to learn about the East when everybody else was threatened by it?
Though Queen Victoria had the title of Empress of India, she had never visited the country. She longed to see India and know more about the country that was her Jewel in the Crown. India came to her, in a sense, in the form of Abdul Karim. He taught her the language, told her about the country, its customs and even the politics. Later, she recreated an Indian room — The Durbar Room, in Osborne House, her holiday home in the Isle of Wight.
Hollywood has often been accused of whitewashing history, a recent example being ‘Dunkirk’. Is there a danger that other films might make people feel nostalgic for the days of empire?
The story of Victoria & Abdul is a true story that had been suppressed by the Royal family and the establishment. It is something that did happen, and is not some fanciful tale of Raj nostalgia. My job as a historian and journalist is to tell the real story.
As a third generation immigrant from the Indian subcontinent, I find it difficult to reconcile the idea of a benign British Queen who seems to loves her colonial subjects and is simultaneously a foreign empress presiding over conquered land. Can the two sides of Queen Victoria coexist?
They have and they did. I discovered a different side to Queen Victoria as I read her letters and journals. She clearly loved India and stood up for her Indians calling out her family and the Household for racism and class snobbery. It is important to remember that Victoria was a titular head. She was not responsible for the administration. That was, and is, the job of Parliament. She did not make the laws, or go to war. Things were done in her name.
Were you comfortable with the film’s modification of the character of Muhammad Buksh to be anti-empire? Is it acceptable to sacrifice historical accuracy for a more balanced portrayal of empire?
That was the decision of the screenplay writer, Lee Hall. I was fine with it, as it made good drama. Also there was nothing objectionable about it. He was the voice of the people, the keeper of conscience. A feature film always has creative license, and I thought Lee built up Buksh’s character well.
70 years after India’s independence, what do you think is the legacy of the British empire?
I think the most damaging legacy of the British Empire was the Partition of India. It led to a wound that still festers in both countries. India and Pakistan are two nuclear-armed countries that have gone to war three times in the last seventy years. Today, we are all children of Empire, living with the consequences one way or another. We speak English, drink tea and play cricket. Many Indians and Pakistanis moved to Britain and settled there. The diaspora is the result of Empire. While, you cannot undo history, I think it is important to learn it. I strongly feel that the history of Empire is the history of the people who made it, and it should be part of the school curriculum.