After the first few scenes, I thought this was going to be Carry On Munshi – there’d been a lot of farcical remarks about people falling off elephants, and a lot of talking in Urdu with translations like “Arsehole” coming up on screen – but it did turn into a genuinely moving film, if not nearly as good as Mrs Brown.
The chronology was horrendously confusing, though! It started off in 1887, the year of the Golden Jubilee – but Queen Victoria was portrayed as a very elderly lady who couldn’t get out of bed without help and kept nodding off during meals, even though she was only 68 at the time! Then, although only a few months seemed to have passed, the Prince of Wales, born in 1841, said that he was 57 years old. And then all of a sudden it was 1901, with no indication that more than a couple of years had passed since the beginning. And the characterisation left quite a bit to be desired: most of the characters were rather two dimensional for a lot of the time, and some of it did have the definite feel of a farce.
However, I thought they did a genuinely good job of portraying the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. She was lonely and feeling isolated after the death of John Brown. I think they made her relationships with her children seem far more distant than they actually were, though. Princess Beatrice wasn’t even mentioned! And she was genuinely interested in India. The film made it seem as if there’d be no original intention for Karim to stay, but that wasn’t true: Queen Victoria had specifically said that she wanted to employ some staff from India. No doubt the anti-British, Guardian-reading, PC brigade in places like Islington (sorry, I’m a bit pissed off this morning over the lack of concern being expressed over the violence in Catalunya) will be screaming blue murder over the depiction of Queen Victoria as someone who was genuinely interested in other cultures, but that depiction is entirely accurate. She promoted Karim regardless of ethnicity and social class – just as she promoted John Brown regardless of his social class and made no objection to her descendants marrying the descendants of morganatic marriages. She was friendly with the Empress Eugenie at a time when anti-Catholic feeling in Britain was still strong, and the Prince of Wales was friendly with people from many different backgrounds. And she genuinely wanted to learn Urdu and Hindi, and Karim taught her.
Yes, it’s possible that he had a few skeletons in his closet, and he may have made up some of what he told her about his background. That came across quite well in the film – that he wasn’t quite who he claimed to be, but that, hey, most other people at court were also largely out for what they could get, and that his company did genuinely make Queen Victoria happy … so did it really matter what his social background was, or if his private life wasn’t exactly in line with Victorian morals? There does seem to have been a pattern whereby Queen Victoria formed attachments to male companions – first Lord Melbourne (who was sadly not the dashing, good-looking hero type portrayed by Rufus Sewell in the ITV series!), then John Brown, then the Munshi, but why not? Nothing “improper” was going on. And, as Judi Dench’s Victoria said several times in this film, being a (widowed) Queen can be a very lonely place. And, yes, she did have a romantic view of India. Didn’t most people in late Victorian Britain? There’s still a fascination with the idea of late 19th century India (something else which the PC brigade no doubt go mad about).
At the end of the day, he did very well out his job, and his companionship and talk about India gave Queen Victoria a lot of pleasure. As for the film, it’s not the world’s greatest, but it does tell an interesting story. I’ve read a couple of books about the Munshi, so I was looking forward to seeing this film and, whilst it wasn’t the best film I’ve ever seen, it certainly wasn’t disappointing.