We've all heard of Victoria and Albert. Their marriage was , brought to life in . Some of us also know about Victoria and John Brown, the kilt-wearing, hard-drinking Scottish footman she leaned on heavily after Albert died. That special friendship was the focus of the 1997 film Mrs. Brown, starring Judi Dench.
But there was another confidante of Victoria's — a man named Abdul Karim — whose relationship with the Queen was lesser-known, yet wildly fascinating.
The forthcoming film , in theaters September 22, is a chronicle of their unlikely alliance — and if the buzz surrounding its recent trailer release is any indication, it seems the story is one audiences are keen to hear. Judi Dench stars as the Queen once again, this time bonding with a young Indian clerk (Bollywood star Ali Fazal) who arrives in England just before the Golden Jubilee celebration for Victoria, then 68 years old.
India was at the time considered "the Jewel in the Crown" of Great Britain, and the Queen was genuinely curious about the nation she ruled over as Empress. She welcomed to her royal court Karim, who had spent months studying etiquette in preparation. When presented to the Queen, he knelt and kissed her feet. In no time, he was much more relaxed in her presence, explaining his native customs and even cooking her curries. Abdul was made her official clerk, or Munshi, two years after the Jubilee.
The friendship had few fans at the time. "Abdul Karim, known as 'the Munshi,' inveigled his way into Victoria's affections as her servant and then as a clerk," writes Julia Baird in Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire. "Her family disliked and distrusted him."
When Victoria was planning a trip to southern France and announced that Abdul would accompany her, she had a revolt on her hands. The Queen's household informed her that they would refuse to take meals with him. When the Queen made clear her disapproval of their attitude, they relented.
Courtier Henry Posonby, her private secretary, wrote, "Things have come to such a pass that the police have been consulted … But it is of no use, for the Queen says that it is 'race prejudice' and that we are all jealous of the poor Munshi."
The Queen's household officers, her family members (especially her son the Prince of Wales), and politicians got dragged into the controversy over her favorable treatment of Abdul. His enemies claimed he inflated his family background and even stole from Victoria. She defended him furiously, often accusing those who criticized him of racism.
"I am so very fond of him," she wrote. "He is so good and gentle and understanding ... and is a real comfort to me."
In the film, Victoria's determined friendship with Abdul shows her personal qualities, sometimes overlooked, of fairness, loyalty, curiosity and wit.
In one scene, as part of her culinary education, Victoria learns about the marvels of the mango. Not surprisingly, she wants to try one, and is told, "They only grow in India."
Victoria responds, "Well, I am empress of India, so have one sent."
Check out the trailer for the film below: