Erasure is a grievous sin, and shedding light on stories that have long been in darkness is at least a partial atonement. “Victoria & Abdul” not only sheds light on the long-forgotten relationship, it bathes it in a loving, golden glow that shimmers with nothing but warmth and kindness.
That’s its problem.
The movie glosses over everything that is problematic about the relationship between Abdul and the queen. Abdul is informed that he will go to England. He is told he will stay in England. He is given English interpretations of Indian clothing (at one point he wears a fetching Mumbai-via-Glasgow ensemble, complete with tartan turban). He is appointed Victoria’s teacher. After years of separation, Abdul’s wife and mother-in-law are sent for to come live in England, whether they like it or not. All of this he bears cheerfully, without a glimpse that any of this is his idea or even his desire.
In the film, Victoria respects Abdul and his culture — at least in her mind. In her eagerness to experience something real from an exotic place, she decrees that she be brought a mango from India, never thinking about who grew the mango, who will be shipping the mango or why she is even entitled to demand a mango in the first place. Her “respectful” learning about the countries her empire has colonized never comes with questioning why colonization is problematic — never mind what gives her the right to be the empress of a country she’s never stepped foot in. She gets all the benefits of power and never questions how that power came to be. Sometimes a mango is just a mango; here it’s a symbol of “I’m not a colonizer, but …”
“Victoria & Abdul” is the kind of story about colonization that the colonizers always like to tell; people in power want their stories cheerful, their servants happy and their athletes standing, because anything else is an uncomfortable reminder of their complicity in a system of oppression. Yes, it’s good that the story of the queen and her munshi has been brought to light, but the bright shine of “Victoria & Abdul” means there’s no room for history’s more shadowy parts.