Can you imagine Queen Victoria, the head of the British Empire at its heyday and of the Church of England, having classes with a dark-skinned Indian Muslim jail clerk? Can you imagine him becoming a friend and adviser, honored with titles and wealth? Can you imagine him teaching her about the Quran and her writing in her diary in Urdu, the official language of today’s Pakistan?
No, right? Yet, it happened. It was documented by the historian-journalist Shrabani Basu in a book that became a movie, Victoria & Abdul (2017). The fact that imagining this is weird shows how deep the colonization of power, thought and being has worked. How we have come to accept certain hierarchies almost as the sky above our heads. Had we not, these questions would not raise eyebrows, in surprise, but shoulders, in acquiescence: “yes. I can imagine that. Why ever not”?
On the other hand, the existence of this movie – produced by the BBC (yes, the British Broadcasting Corporation), distributed by American and British giants of the industry – portraying this relationship and these colonial mechanisms themselves is a sign that times are changing.
Many parts of the movie unveil colonial logic. First, Abdul Karim is brought from India, as he is conveniently tall for the show, without any choice, for the Queen’s jubilee. He is dressed for the occasion in folkloric costumes, not used in real life but chosen by the royal household for being “more authentic”, according to a drawing in the British Museum. This shows how colonizers disposed of colonized people as objects and of their culture as exotic entertainment, a show.
Then, as he unexpectedly stays on, the royal court is astounded by the queen spending time talking and listening to him. Why would she, if he is not a person, but an object of the empire? And what possibly could he have to say that would be worth listening to, let alone interesting for the Queen?! When he becomes her teacher and adviser, they are still more dumbfounded. Does he know anything of value to instruct her?! His knowledge is not considered knowledge. It is her empire that brings “instruction and civilization” to his land of “primitive barbarians”.
As they get closer, she lavishes goods and titles on him – which the court cannot stand. They can’t bear to be equalized with Karim, who they deem naturally inferior to them in every sense. Non-white, non-Christian, non-European. If he was all of this, and simply not a noble – as was her former confidant, John Brown, a Scottish commoner – he would be despised for daring to go above his station, envied for having her favor. People would seek his good opinion and consider him as the caprice of an old widow, an interesting gossip topic. Instead, we see everyone refuse to speak to him, unless obliged to, and to acknowledge his presence, walking past him as if he was part of the wall. After Victoria’s death, her son and successor try to erase and hide every trace of his presence in her life – the reason why we only came to know this story so recently, with Basu’s research.
However, the movie is not perfect and in no way redeems the British rule in India. It does not speak of how much it impoverished the territory and its people. It also fails to mention the many thousands of Indians murdered in atrocities by action and omission, as killings and famines. On the contrary, it mentions a Muslim mutiny as an abhorrent event that killed 2000 British soldiers (as if the resistance of the oppressed could in any way be compared to the violence of the oppressor).
Also, the devotion of Abdul to the queen causes mixed feelings. Understandably, he catches her eye for not being the dull courtier who follows the protocol and says to her only what she expects to hear. It is heartwarming how he sees her as a person, not only as a queen, and that he is sufficiently proud of his culture to pass it on to her. On the other hand, it is an uncomfortable (and sadly, historically not unlikely) fact that he is completely besotted by the oppressing system and by her as the top of it. Being continuously humiliated, dehumanized, and inferiorized, away from his home, ordered from here to there is to him a privilege, just because he gets to be close to her. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that we get to see all this in a British movie, in which the British not only provide an entertaining story that sells but also look at their past critically. This is not an exclusively British tendency, but a Western one in general.
Additionally, the great attraction of the movie – other than their unexpected relationship itself – is getting the queen (and possibly some of us) initiated into his culture. The beauty of the Urdu writing – in their lessons, her diary, and in the movie’s title, where their names appear in both the Western and the Urdu style. The art of carpet weaving, a Persian legacy. Spices and mango. The poetry of Rumi (1207-1273) – prominent writer and philosopher of Islam, who greatly influenced Sufism. The history and stories of India.
This comes to show that non-Western languages, traditions, religions, beauty, knowledge, arts, and artists stay in the shadows no longer. Rather, they come more and more to the forefront, to public knowledge, to pop culture. They are put into dialogue with the Western ones that have been universalized in the process of hegemonic domination that taught us to forget, erase, abandon, look down upon everything that didn’t quite look like them. In short, this movie shows us, by Western hands and contemporary look, the absurdities of the colonial past and the increasingly stronger and impossible to ignore multicultural and decolonial present and future. It is not quite a revolution, but it gives reason for hope and smiles.
Vitória dos Santos Acerbi