Abdul’s story has only recently been discovered – why is now such a good time to release a major film about him?
It’s been hidden from history for too long. Conveniently, this man’s story was brushed aside, as well as the last phase of Queen Victoria’s life. But this was 15 years, all the way to her deathbed – so it makes you wonder why. Plus, I thought it’s a good time because of all the stuff that’s happening in the world.
What did you find most fascinating from your research about Abdul?
You could learn a lot about him from letters. I think my ‘buy’ into this film was these two letters I saw, one in really well-written Urdu and one in this beautiful English handwriting. The Urdu one was penned by Queen Victoria, and the English one was written by Abdul Karim. It was just role reversal, so ironic. That sticks with me.
What do you hope viewers will learn from your portrayal of Abdul?
Just a better worldview, I guess. I think they need to learn that it’s not a bad thing to climb the ladder of success and be smart about it, be a little manipulative about it, like Abdul was. There were a lot of Indians like him working for the British at the time, because that was the government, so there wasn’t anything wrong with what Abdul did – everybody was doing it. And though Abdul’s not educated, he was schooled in a very different sense, in the madrassas. These are different kinds of schools, a bit like home schools, which didn’t fit the English system. Yet he was really successful.
How did you balance Abdul’s kindness with his ambition?
I think he saw through the nonsense around him, but he also has a sort of innocence, and the ability to love came naturally to him. We’re not born haters, we become haters.
Is that why Victoria took such a shine to him, so quickly?
He talked to her like a human, and not under protocol. He looked at her just as one human would look at another, and that’s what I think was really attractive for her. I think she was just sick of people agreeing with her the whole time, being nice to her, and just being too British!
What’s Victoria’s legacy in India?
Well, we’ve had a rough couple of centuries. I don’t think Victoria is the most hailed celebrity back in India. Even today you see these wonderful black marble statues of her just lying about, they’ve been taken down and thrown away. I suppose rightly so, I don’t blame them because we’ve all been through a lot. We’re still in shambles, so there is some resentment.
Is that reflected in the film?
I like that it doesn’t really glorify British rule, and it gives you a true account of what was happening on both sides. But in the middle of all that, The Queen and Abdul were just trying to be human about this whole affair, even though their relationship seemed wrong to others. That’s something I hope people see in this film.
Victoria & Abdul is in cinemas now.
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