Unemployment does a funny thing to a person. In the quest to save money, staying home to watch television doesn’t seem such an unappealing idea. So there I was, settling down to watch BBC’s Question Time whilst snacking on those amazing biscuits advertised as more chocolate than a biscuit, you know the ones. I was soon grateful there was chocolate at hand. Watching #bbcqt should come with a health warning as it never fails to fill me with despair at the state of humanity, and this edition was no exception. Already experiencing a mix of horror coupled with the car-crash inability to switch it off, David Dimbleby ramped up my indignation by seemingly mocking Shami Chakrabarti on her appointment as Baroness. She retorted with exasperated irony, ‘How dare I take my place at the table as well.’ It made me think of the power dynamics that endlessly play out in our post-colonial world, when we continue to question the legitimacy of a person’s role because of who they are rather than what they do. A few days later I found myself watching Victoria & Abdul and was reminded of this encounter.
Directed by Stephen Frears, whose other works include My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), High Fidelity (2000) and The Queen (2006), Victoria & Abdul is an adaptation of a novel written by Shrabani Basu and based on a true story, well mostly as the screen reads. It’s 1887 and Abdul, a young but tall prison clerk in Uttar Pradesh, is requested, much to his delight, to present a ceremonial coin to the Empress of India, Queen Victoria, at her Golden Jubilee in England. This is how the film starts its journey: with Abdul and his smaller coin-presenting-counterpart Mohammed, travelling for months on end in squalor and stormy seas with the simple goal to present her majesty with a gift from India.
For all its beautiful cinematography and the quiet anticipation one feels when you settle down in your seat and the first scenes roll in, I couldn’t help but feel a little apprehensive. Why was Abdul travelling all this way to deliver a coin to the Queen of a country that had imposed its rule on his own? More worryingly, why was he okay with it? At this point India had been under British rule for decades under the expansion of the British Empire. With the spread of imperialism came the violent suppression of local people through systematic policy-making and violence. Anybody who dared to retaliate was brutally wiped out.