The world well knows Victoria, the iconic leader who ruled an empire spanning the world – but, who was Abdul?
Victoria & Abdul tells the extraordinary true story of the amazing and unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and a young clerk, Abdul Karim, who becomes her teacher, her spiritual advisor, and her devoted friend.
The story of their friendship, deliberately hidden for a century, is now told for moviegoers, with Academy Award winner Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) reuniting with Academy Award-nominated director Stephen Frears (The Queen), and returns to the role of Queen Victoria. The screenplay is by Academy Award nominee Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), based on journalist Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant.
“She was the Queen of England and he was a humble clerk from India,” recounts author Shrabani Basu. “Their friendship would shock the palace and lead to a near-revolt against the Queen.”
In 2001 Basu was researching a book on the history of curry. She learned that Queen Victoria enjoyed eating curries. Basu visited Osborne House, Victoria’s Isle of Wight residence, and was most intrigued to see two portraits and one bronze bust of a regal-looking Indian man. In Victoria’s dressing room, she spotted another portrait of the Indian man, situated directly beneath that of Victoria’s beloved John Brown. On a larger scale, Osborne’s Durbar Room, crammed with treasures from India, was a monument to Victoria’s fascination with “the jewel in the crown;” even though she was the Empress of India, she never visited. Basu notes, “For safety reasons, she couldn’t go to India, so she had India come to her.”
In 2006 she visited Balmoral, the Queen’s castle in the Scottish Highlands, where she saw Karim Cottage, the house that Victoria had built for Abdul. She realized there was an importance to the mysterious Indian man known as the Munshi (i.e., teacher), and she set herself the task of finding out what it was.
The Queen’s son Bertie, later King Edward VII, had destroyed all correspondence between his mother and the Munshi – but had not thought to touch her Hindustani journals. In those journals, Basu discovered the story of Queen Victoria and her beloved Munshi, Abdul Karim. Handwritten by Victoria in Urdu, the journals had sat in the Royal Archive, entirely left out of any and all Western versions of Victorian history because none of the historians read Urdu. Basu reports, “I can understand Urdu, though I can’t read the script. Abdul had written lines in Roman for Victoria, and I understood these. Where there was only Urdu script, I had it translated. There were 13 volumes.” From their pages the relationship of Victoria and Abdul emerged.
There was one further volume to be unearthed, as Basu’s investigation took her to Karachi, Pakistan. Abdul never had any children, but his grand-nephew led her to a journal, stored away in a trunk. Abdul had started the journal in 1887, when he was summoned all the way from India to serve at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee commemorating her 50 years on the throne. His diary gave Basu a firsthand account that confirmed much of what she had found in the Queen’s Urdu writings. “Finally,” she says, “I had found Abdul’s voice.”
The details captivated the author. She reports, “Abdul was 24 years old when he was sent from India to the U.K. He caught Victoria’s eye and was rapidly promoted. Extra English lessons were arranged for him so that they could converse more easily. He gave her lessons in Urdu every evening. He read Ghalib’s poetry to her. The two of them became inseparable.
“Her household plotted against him, threatening that the Prince of Wales [Bertie’s title at the time] would have to step in. Victoria stood by Abdul like a rock.”
Culling from the diary and the journals, Basu wrote Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant.
BAFTA Award-winning filmmaker Beeban Kidron of Cross Street Films read a newspaper article about the book in 2010 and was immediately taken with the tale. She remarks, “What intrigued me was that here was a previously untold history, a gem hidden away for over a century. It was a revelation that Queen Victoria had a very close relationship with not only a servant but a Muslim servant. The reaction within her royal household was quite telling, and relevant to what’s going on now in the world – about acknowledging tension between cultures and having open-mindedness.”
Adapting the Book
Kidron’s Cross Street partner, Lee Hall, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Billy Elliot, heard Basu on the radio and was equally intrigued. So the two arranged a meeting with her. By this point, Cross Street was not the only production company interested in optioning Basu’s book for a movie version. But their response to the story resonated with the author. Kidron remembers, “What interested Shrabani was how we saw Victoria & Abdul as a story of an outsider; it was a clash of class and culture, and we felt it would be invigorating to see Victoria’s world from the vantage point of an ordinary young man from Agra who made it to the top of an empire.
“Also, we saw this as a film that could play in the multiplexes, something funny and entertaining – a story about the royal family that audiences haven’t seen before – while also having something to say about prejudice.”
Basu granted Cross Street the rights, and Cross Street began further developing the project with Christine Langan at BBC Films, who was excited by the prospect of a mainstream film with a message. The turning point for the feature came when Kidron and Hall brought Victoria & Abdul to their longtime friend and frequent collaborator Eric Fellner, co-chair with Tim Bevan of one of the world’s leading film production companies, Working Title Films. The Academy Award-nominated producer remarks, “I saw this as a story for our times, and I knew that as screenwriter Lee had the skill to adapt Shrabani’s book. He gravitates towards stories that explore class, and being on the outside looking in – and vice versa.”
The producers set out to make a movie that would offer the sumptuous interiors, epic landscapes, and lavish costumes that audiences expect from a historical drama – while giving them a story of friendship and loyalty that they might not expect.
Kidron reflects, “It was energizing for us to make a movie that combined big scenes, requiring scores of extras who had to be costumed at 5 in the morning so we could be shooting by 8, with scenes of two people having intimate conversations that were serious and touching.
“The relationship between Victoria and Abdul speaks to, and about, different generations. Her age and his youth are no barrier to love, and they are both transformed by the experience, which was something new to them and something which we feel will be special for audiences as well.”
As with any historical tale that is made into a two-hour film, some events and people were conflated for dramatic purposes. Kidron notes, “We all talked about how the screenplay had to make a story out of the wealth of detail in Shrabani’s book, which is beautifully written and evocative but has a journalistic approach. Our picture is more of a fable; it is true to the spirit but by necessity has to create dramatic moments. Lee’s story is a delightful confection but at its heart stands a deeply touching relationship. That’s what he loves to do in his storytelling: make the audience laugh and then make them cry.
“Since Shrabani wrote her book with access to the diaries of both Victoria and Abdul, there is a generous flow of factual information running through the story which Lee taps into throughout. Much of what’s in the script, however ludicrous it might seem, comes from Queen Victoria herself!”
Basu states, “Lee has taken out just the right bits from the book, and he’s developed some parts and characters more. He’s certainly retained the humanity.”
The ability to parse both the weight of history and impart a witty perspective on same is a hallmark of Academy Award-nominated director Stephen Frears’ work. Kidron always wanted him to take the helm. She says, “I knew he would be great for Victoria & Abdul because he gets at the humor in situations yet he doesn’t lose sight of the seriousness.”
An Academy Award nominee and Tony Award winner, Lee Hall is an English playwright and screenwriter. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he attended Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he studied English literature. In 1997, his playwriting career was launched when his BBC Radio 4 play, the drama Spoonface Steinberg, was broadcast to great acclaim.
His first feature film screenplay was the story of a boy from Northeastern England who, in the face of opposition from his family and community, aspires to be a ballet dancer. Billy Elliot brought Mr. Hall an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He also received BAFTA, Writers Guild of America, and London Critics’ Circle Film Award nominations; and won the British Independent Film Award for Best Original Screenplay.
He later adapted Billy Elliot for the stage, writing the book and lyrics; the music was written by Elton John, and the show was directed by Stephen Daldry, who had also directed the movie.
Mr. Hall’s newest play is Network, an adaptation of the 1976 film written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet; the world premiere staging will open at London’s National Theatre November 2017, with Academy Award-nominated actor Bryan Cranston making his U.K. stage debut in the lead role of Howard Beale.
Director on board
The producers waited until Hall was a couple of drafts into the screenplay adaptation before taking the project to Frears. He was keen to board the project, responding to what he calls “a very good script which was full of lively, sparky writing. Lee writes in an elevated style, in a sophisticated manner which I love.”
Frears’ longtime producer, Academy Award nominee Tracey Seaward (The Queen), joined the project with him. She felt strongly that the film could explore themes the team had addressed before in their films, “such as race relations. On that topic, this story from over 100 years ago feels even more relevant now. First and foremost, this is an important story that Shrabani illuminated: a young Muslim becoming the loyal companion of an Anglo nation’s longest-surviving reigning monarch.”
Basu was consulted throughout the process, and as the filmmaking collective coalesced she realized that the story was being fielded by “a dream team. I could not have asked for more, or better – and the casting was the icing on the cake.”
Among film’s most versatile directors, Stephen Frears has always embraced a wide variety of styles, themes, and genres. His work has met with critical acclaim, bringing him nominations for Directors Guild of America and Golden Globe Awards. He has twice been nominated as Best Director at the Academy Awards, for The Grifters and The Queen.
When thoughts turned to identifying an actress who could embody the stature, pride, probing intelligence, wit, and fragility of “the Grandmother of Europe” there was really only one person anyone and everyone had in mind. Frears, having collaborated with Dame Judi Dench previously, knew her to be “a brilliant actress – and one who looks like Victoria!
“But she had portrayed Victoria already, in Mrs. Brown , so I wondered that the idea might well be a nonstarter with her.”
Fortunately for all concerned, the Academy Award winner rather liked the prospect of returning to a fascinating woman she had portrayed at a later stage in life. Dench reveals, “I was very pleased that this suddenly came up. I had become absolutely absorbed in her story when we made Mrs. Brown and done all the homework, so, why say no? I admire Victoria as a remarkable person, and this was an irresistible story that had only recently come to light.
“With Shakespeare, you can come back to a play hoping that in the interim you’ve learnt something more about how to play the part. Whereas this was a proper progression for a real person. I had a sweet letter from [Mrs. Brown director] John Madden, who said he was so glad I would be revisiting Victoria.”
The two stories’ respective central relationships crystallized during very different eras in Victoria’s life, but Dench felt there was a connection. She explains, “Victoria was happy when she was with [her husband, Prince] Albert, and then [her Scottish aide] John Brown, and then Abdul. The continuity there is, she was relaxed, completely relaxed, in someone’s company without all the c—p of court, people saying, ‘You’ve got to be here at this time and there at that time.’”
When she met Abdul, Victoria was decades into her then-unprecedented reign of 63 years on the throne. “Victoria was a prisoner of convention, like most of us become,” reflects Frears.
Seaward adds, “Can you imagine ascending to the throne at age 18 and remaining there forever after? Yet, in her 70s, she becomes a quiet revolutionary, learning Urdu and reading the Koran. Already a fascinating lady, she became even more so in her last years. She was the Empress of India, but she realized that she needed to know more about India.”
Dench herself has felt a deep connection with India for several years, nurturing it ever since she filmed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel there. She states, “It’s completely my spiritual home. I can’t wait to go back.”
Another draw for the leading lady was the chance to reunite with a favorite director. She says, “He has taste, Stephen Frears, and I like him so much as a person. When working with him, you put yourself completely in his hands. He may be enigmatic, but you know it’s for the best. You want to please him.
“We have a shorthand. I know him so well that when he says after a take, ‘Do you want to go again?’ that’s usually because he wants to go again. Aside from all that, Stephen and I have very much the same sense of humor so we make each other laugh a lot!”
Since Victoria & Abdul highlights a rebellious streak in the character of Queen Victoria, as she bucks tradition, her household, and the culture of the time, Frears knew that the role would tap into Dench’s own “mischievous and subversive qualities.”
“That no one else could have played Victoria was brought home each and every day of filming,” marvels Kidron. “Judi has a phenomenal sense of humor and yet there is a seriousness to her at her core. So she can at once convey, and combine, funny and dramatic tones. Her contribution to the telling of the story is immeasurable.
Dench muses, “When you look at those great statues of Victoria, she does seem indomitable. With this story, we now learn about Victoria’s vulnerability.”
Casting the young man who would share the screen with a doyenne of acting called for a worldwide consideration of talent. “We were looking for a fresh face,” notes Kidron. “Ali was not known to us, but he is well-known in India. So when we went to Mumbai to read actors for this role with casting director Nandini Shrikent, he was among the many we saw.
“As Ali left the room, Stephen said, ‘I can see Queen Victoria being quite taken with him.’” Eventually, Fazal made his first-ever visit to the U.K. for a screen test in London.
Kidron muses, “Ali’s journey mirrored Abdul’s, both in a geographical regard – and in that he knocked the socks off of us and got the gig!”
Frears elaborates, “Ali was charming, attractive – all to the good. But it had been clear to me that there was a wide-eyed quality which the actor playing Abdul would have to be able to access. I felt we weren’t going to find that in an actor who had been born or brought up in England. Adeel Akhtar, who we had cast [as Abdul’s fellow Indian visitor, Mohammed] first, needed to convey a more seasoned perspective, and Adeel has been in England all his life. But for Abdul we needed innocence and amazement; they were crucial to the character, and Ali understood this.”
Fazal immersed himself in materials of the time period, spending two months on research including extensive handwriting and voice work. Further conversations with the director led the actor to a greater understanding of how the characterization could best progress. Fazal says, “Stephen is one of my favorite directors, and I wanted my performance to be consistent with his vision of the story.”
He reflects, “Abdul takes everything as it comes, and completely at face value. This does lead to some comedic moments because, unlike others, he means what he says. The Queen is so fond of him, and wants more of him. Stephen said to me, ‘Please watch Peter Sellers in a film called Being There,’ for reference – a beautiful movie…