Tuesday, October 10, 2017

An Empress and her Munshi

The Empress was, of course, Victoria, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India. Her Munshi was Abdul Karim (1863-1909), an Indian Muslim who was sent to be employed as a servant at the British Royal Court on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. By then, Victoria had been "Empress of India" since 1876, and the British had been ruling India even longer. The Queen quickly took a liking to him and asked him to teach her Urdu. Soon he was an established presence in the Royal Household as the "Munshi," a latter-day successor to her beloved Scottish servant John Brown (1826-1883) - occupying an analogous place in the old Queen's affections and similarly disdained by much of the Royal Family and Court. 

The new film Victoria and Abdul is based on this story and on the book of same name by Shrabani Basu. The analogy to the story of Victoria's friendship with John Brown in an earlier phase of her long widowhood is heightened for the viewer by the fact that the Queen is again played by the incomparable Judi Dench, who played Victoria in the 1997 movie about that earlier friendship, Mrs. Brown. Like the Queen herself, Dench has grown older but has lost none of her ability to command the scene - be it the British Empire at its height or the 21st-century movie set.

The film also features Ali Fazal as Abdul and in his final role the late Tim Pigott-Smith as the Queen's Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby.

The film shows how Karim's swift rise inevitably created jealousy and discontent among the members of the Royal Household - exacerbated by Karim’s lowly Indian origin. As one of Queen Victoria’s biographers has written: “The rapid advancement and personal arrogance of the Munshi would inevitably have led to his unpopularity, but the fact of his race made all emotions run hotter against him.“ The movie highlights that racial aspect, but Victoria herself (and Karim's long-suffering fellow-Indian servant Mohammed) both show keen awareness of the universal dynamics of ambition and careerism which were at work in the narrow, enclosed, and rather rarefied environment of the Royal Court. Both are also aware that Karim himself is ambitious and in that sense little different from the others. Victoria had, of course, been through all this before with John Brown and, in a somewhat different way, with her beloved husband Albert, who had also not been well received and appreciated in Britain. Being Queen, she was in a sense above all that, and so she could transcend the pettiness of family and courtier competitiveness and ambition and advance her favorite against the Establishment. Only the privileged are usually free enough to flout convention. Others depend on convention for their identity and worth.

One difference between Karim's self-promotion and that of the other courtiers, however, is that he personally somehow makes the Queen happy, which they largely do not. He (again not unlike John Brown but maybe even more so) serves as an escape from the tedium of royal duty - and the even more tedious people the Queen is inevitably surrounded by. While we know that Victoria was really a very passionate woman, who was attracted to men, the film highlights the almost mother-son relationship between the Queen and her Munshi, a dynamic which probably compensated for her poor relationship with her eldest son and probably also irritated her real heir even further.

As with John Brown, it is the Prince of Wales ("Bertie") who seems most deeply resentful of Karim, with dire consequences for Karim when Bertie becomes king. (In the end, the Establishment always wins.) It was Bertie's fate to be Prince of Wales for what seemed like forever and never to feel appreciated by his mother, who never allowed him to play any serious governmental role. His resentment was evidently enormous, which would explain his historical hostility not just to his mother (and to the memory of his father and his father's homeland) but also to those special outsiders who were recipients of royal affection so definitively denied to him. In real life Bertie did behave badly towards Karim (although not so badly as portrayed in the movie), but he also became a very successful and admired King as Edward VII. 

While the general outline of the Munshi saga was obviously known, it was only less than a  decade ago when Karim's own personal diary became public, and the story more fully able to be told. 

if the movie were a total fiction, it would still be wonderful because of the first-rate performances by Judi Dench and Ali Fazal. Historically, it illustrates the problematic character of court life - at any "court," royal or otherwise, past or present. It shows how human emotions sometimes need to break through established conventions in order to breathe a little bit more freely. And it identifies both the genuine joys and the inevitable perils of flouting convention.

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