A Ghillie and a Munshi

As I mentioned on the radio yesterday, May 24th 2019 marks the bicentennial of Queen Victoria. So it would seem appropriate to have a bit of cinematic Victoriana for our Saturday movie date. Her Majesty was an important and consequential figure in almost every corner of the world, and once upon a time the biopics reflected that. But she was to a degree unknown and unknowable, which offers great opportunities to the contemporary biographical sensibility. And so the most notable films of the last two decades belong to a sub-genre of their own: the Queen-Empress and the men who caught the eye of a lonely and isolated woman in the long decades of her widowhood. John Madden’s Mrs Brown (1997) is about the Queen’s relationship with her ghillie; Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul (exactly twenty years later, 2017) is about the Queen’s relationship with her munshi.

If you don’t know what a ghillie is, well, it’s a Scots Gaelic word for a Highland chief’s attendant on a fishing or hunting trip. If you don’t know what a munshi is, hey, relax: Nobody in the Royal Household does either, and so they’re a little taken aback to find that a Hindu waiter brought over to add a bit of imperial exotica to the Golden Jubilee in 1887 has suddenly been promoted to the hitherto unknown position of “Munshi and Indian Clerk to the Queen-Empress”.

A court favorite is always resented by less-favored courtiers – for whatever reason suffices. In Mrs Brown (the below-stairs mocking name for her ghillie-smitten Majesty), the favorite, John Brown, is resented for being a big brawny bit of Highland rough. In Victoria & Abdul, which begins four years after the Highland fling’s sudden death, the new favorite, Abdul Karim, is resented because his insinuating Moghul and Persian airs are regarded as ludicrously above his station.

Yet they all get what’s going on: As one lady-in-waiting at Balmoral titters, Abdul is “the brown John Brown”.

To confirm that we are in the realm of sequel, the Queen in both films is played, splendidly and sympathetically, by Judi Dench, and the supporting characters are largely identical, too – from Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s Private Secretary, to her long-serving Lady of the Bedchamber, Lady Churchill. As in Mrs Brown, the latter screenplay is disfigured by solecisms. In the earlier film, the script cannot quite decide whether the Private Secretary is “Sir Henry” or “Mr Ponsonby”. In the sequel, Judi Dench sighs that, “I have almost a billion citizens” – not a sentence she would ever have uttered: she had almost a billion subjects – and, as wily old Éamon de Valera would later remark in another context, the concept of “citizenship” was all but unknown in the British Empire. One of her last major legislative acts was to give Royal Assent to the Australian constitution – which she found to be in very poor taste, as the word “Commonwealth” reminded her of Oliver Cromwell.

I don’t know why multi-gazillion-dollar productions can’t hire some schlub to check that sort of thing, but one grows wearily accustomed to it. Because, increasingly, historical pictures seem utterly incapable of understanding the past on its own terms, I confess I had minimal expectations of this film. The drama opens in Agra in British India, with Abdul hurrying through the crowded streets en route to his clerical job in the local gaol, and the very first word of the screenplay comes when he accidentally bumps into an army officer. “Idiot!” snaps the Englishman. Here we go, one sighs: Brown man good, white men bad.

A scene or two later, Abdul and his diminutive compatriot Mohammed are shipboard and bound for the great imperial metropolis. “Civilization!” beams Sir Thomas Dennehy, their minder from the Royal Household, as they step onto a filthy English dock to be importuned by pox-ridden beggars. “Barbarians!” shudders poor Mohammed. One recalls Gandhi’s alleged bon mot when invited to say what he thought about western civilization: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

And yet and yet, after this obligatory throat-clearing, Lee Hall’s screenplay is extremely droll and rather touching. Abdul and Mohammed represent two strains of Indian identity that survive to this day: while Abdul “curries favor” (literally: the real-life munshi cooked the Queen chicken curry with dal and pilau rice, which she liked so much she made it one of the core items of the palace menu), the chippy Mohammed bitches and whines about “the sh*tty British Empire”. He is unaccountably obsessed with small points of status: When Sir Henry Ponsonby explains that Abdul will present the Queen with her Golden Jubilee gift on a tray at the Royal banquet, Mohammed demands to know, “Do I have a tray?” “No, there’s only one tray,” drawls Ponsonby off-handedly, so come the big night the aggrieved Mohammed insists on miming an invisible tray as he proceeds down St George’s Hall at Windsor.

Alert to every perceived slight, he lands in England as a servant of the Queen and, within weeks, finds himself demoted to the far more degrading position of servant to Abdul the favor-currier. The character is real, but in dramatic terms exists mainly to provide a contemporary perspective on the past (like Blackadder in “Blackadder”, so to speak). He could have been on a hiding to nothing, but Adeel Akhtar makes out of Mohammed’s blackly comic fatalism a small jewel of a performance.

Upon arrival, both men are taken to the Royal outfitters to be measured for their hastily invented ethnic waiter’s costume. Which is by way of the Arabian Nights with the VRI Royal cypher splashed on the chest like Superman’s giant S. When Abdul ventures to suggest that the sash isn’t really typically Indian, the bespoke tailor drawls that he knows that but they wanted to make it look more “authentic”. One is reminded of the thesis of David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism – that a large part of empire is about the dressing up, which, come to think of it, is one of the reasons I’m an old-school imperialist. Dress-up games as an element of state power are not to be underestimated.

One assumes my Bengal Lancers enthusiasm is not shared by Stephen Frears and Lee Hall, and one is aware that the film in a certain obvious sense is a provocation. Two decades back, Mrs Brown opened a week after the death of the Princess of Wales and was reflected in that context: Monarchy and duty vs public obsession and paparazzi. Victoria & Abdul plays out against a larger canvas: As the Queen’s munshi (mentor), Abdul teaches her Urdu and the Koran. “She’ll be wearing a burqa next,” sneers the Prince of Wales. We are meant to deduce, presumably, that England and Islam have been entwined for a very long time – which is true, but not much consolation as the power balance shifts. Victoria had had, even by Royal standards, a very sheltered and lonely upbringing, exacerbated as queen by courtly conventions that denied her the possibility of genuine friendship. It required a guileless artless indifference to all that to enable anyone, whether ghillie or munshi, to break through.

Unlike the present Queen, Victoria had no desire to visit the Empire, but she was very strongly in favor of the Empire visiting her and she had a great curiosity about the distant lands she knew she would never see. That last is something she does share with Elizabeth, whose fascination with the Commonwealth is mostly what keeps it going. You can see its appeal, of course: without Her Majesty’s Dominions overseas, being Queen would just be a tedious round of opening hospitals in Rochdale and shopping centers in Solihull; it’s not hard to appreciate why being brought ashore in a dugout canoe on a South Pacific island might appeal more to the monarchical sensibility – or, likewise, being taught the Koran and served chicken curry by the Osborne House munshi.

Alas for the Queen-Empress, nobody else gets it. After a tour of the new Durbah Room, her Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, orders Ponsonby to put a stop to all this “Munshi-mania”. To the Prince of Wales, which title is a fancy term for being the world’s oldest intern, the Queen’s descent into Islamo-Persian mysticism is merely the latest indignity upon an aging roué. After being forced to share his mother’s lavatory on the Royal Train, Bertie spits his frustration: “I’m fifty-seven! The munshi has his own bathroom…” The cast would be fun to watch in anything: Michael Gambon as Salisbury, Tim Piggott-Smith as Ponsonby, Eddie Izzard as Bertie, Fenella Woolgar as Miss Phipps, and Paul Reid as the Queen’s physician, who, when ordered to check whether the childless munshi is fully functioning below stairs, responds in fury that he didn’t spend seven years at medical school in Edinburgh to “look at Indian dicks”. Then there are those wonderfully English Rep cameos, like Simon Callow as a tutti frutti Puccini, to whose Manon Lescaut the Queen is somewhat cool, and responds by asking if he knows anything by Gilbert & Sullivan. Through it all, Ali Fazal gives a very cleverly poised performance, both a somewhat beatific presence and yet sufficiently alive and human to engage an old, bored listless monarch. Abdul’s only sin is that he is too good at being a Royal subject, and so everyone around, whether low-born and Indian or aristocratic and English, comes to despise him for it.

“The brown John Brown” is better than its predecessor: It enlarges the canvas, and yet explores the characters more intimately. But did it all happen this way? Well, enough of it did. The Queen gave the real Abdul cottages on the grounds of five Royal palaces, and land for his family in India. She made him a Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire and a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order – which is the same rank as Dame Quentin Bryce, CVO, the recently retired Governor-General of Australia. Did Victoria really commission paintings of Abdul? Yes. Far more than are shown in the film.

And did the Prince of Wales and his sisters really loathe him? Yes, they did – although, upon the death of his mother, the new King Edward VII was considerate enough to permit Abdul to be the last to view the Great White Queen before the sealing of her coffin. And so it was the one and only palace munshi who saw the world’s then longest-reigning monarch off to eternity.

~Mark will be back later this evening to read Part Two of our second-birthday Tale for Our TimeThe Machine Stops by E M Forster. And there’s also our sampler of music from Tales for Our Time in which Steyn plays Brahms, Elgar, Glinka, Mahler, Mussorgsky and more. For Sunday and Monday we will have our Memorial Day observances and analysis of the European elections.

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