A Tale of a Monarch’s Unsung Confidant

A Review : Victoria and Abdul – Director – Stephen Frearsquint

Ali Fazal, Judi Dench, Director Stephen Frears and Eddie Izzard.(Photo Courtesy: Suresh Nellikode)

Abdul Karim was more than happy to travel to England to hand over a special coin to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, as instructed by his boss in British India. This is the point from where Victoria & Abdul takes off, to chronicle the story of how Karim’s year-long visit to England was extended to over a decade.

Perhaps Karim (played well by Ali Fazal) had no intentions at the outset to grab a special position in Queen Victoria’s mind or life. Maybe he was not aware of the gravity of the breach of protocol he caused. But the relationship between the monarch and the servant had a massive impact on an empire preserved by the biggest martinets the world has ever seen.

Despite warnings by the sticklers of propriety in the royal household, the queen utilised her monarchic immunity to promote Karim to the position of Munshi and a close confidant. Karim, a Hafiz who claims to know the 114 Suras of Quran by heart, teaches the queen some Hindi/Urdu words, to help her connect to India.

She asks the royal household to send someone to India to bring back some mangoes, and chutney made of ‘the queen of all fruits’.

Imagine the plight of an introverted queen, who is frequently caught dozing at the dinner table, as she transforms into an active, vibrant, party-loving personality. Judi Dench brilliantly portrays the temperamental peculiarity of a monarch “disagreeably attached to power” as she puts it. Dench is no stranger to this character, having played similar roles in Mrs Brown (1997) and Shakespeare in Love(1998).

Karim’s only intention was to be a blue-eyed boy, in the eyes of his bosses both in India and abroad; and he saw nothing wrong with growing closer to the queen. But look at the hardbound branch of executives who have to follow the procedures and protocols attached to the monarchy.

Much to their dismay and distress, Karim, irrespective of the consequences, becomes a fair-haired part of the queen’s life. It is easy to imagine the roadblocks and conflicts of interest that may arise when someone is escalated to the position of a political confidant. It becomes a harder nut to crack when a monarch is involved. The royal lines make you laugh while the drama in the inner circles could be not be portrayed better than it has been in this film.

Although the story is largely dependent on real incidents that unfolded after 1887, the script is based on a book of the same name written by Shrabani Basu. While holidaying in the Isle of Wight, Shrabani chanced upon a painting of Karim at the Osborne House, a former resort that belonged to Queen Victoria. Another picture of him coupled with one of John Brown’s at the old residence of the queen made her think about how Karim must have had a special place in the queen’s life. It is with this in mind that she penned a book about it in 2006.

That was a calculated move by the then government to wipe out that part of history in order to ensure that the queen’s reputation was free of ‘blemishes’. Basu went back to Agra, from where Karim began his journey. Karim passed away in 1909. She found his grave and found that he had no children. After the publication of the book in 2010, Basu has reiterated in several interviews that she is still searching for his relatives.

Some of his kin from Bengaluru got in touch with her and provided some information, helping her get her hands on some original journals – from a relative who had moved to Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947. When the original journals of Karim reached Basu, it drew appreciation from his relatives, who were initially unwilling to help.

Screenwriter Lee Hall and director Stephen Frears had a tough time transforming the story into a costumed comedy for everyone to enjoy. To a large extent, Frears has succeeded in portraying the essence of conceited royalty, that is both fragile and wary of all things new.

Frears has some outstanding directorial credits to his name, for films like The QueenPhilomena among other. Ali Fazal, a Bollywood pick with his outstanding histrionics, has made Karim’s role memorable.

The supporting actors have done their best in their assigned roles. Tim Piggot-Smith, who played Major General Sir Henry Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, could not see the movie to its completion due to his untimely death in April 2017. Piggot-Smith is best remembered for his role in The Jewel in the Crown – that fetched him the best actor award in BAFTA, 1985.

Renowned TV actor and stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard delivers a brilliant performance as Prince Albert; as does Michael Gambon as then Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.

The film has garnered mixed reviews, with some saying the queen was depicted as a lethargic monarch, thus tarnishing her image. Critics have slammed the film as irresponsible for letting a powerful queen off the hook. Some reviewers have called the film a realistic portrayal of a progressive outsider who stood in the way of white racist rulers.

As one of the official entries from the UK, the film drew large crowds at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2017.

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

Suresh Nellikode

(The Quint – Oct 08, 2017)


Spanish Lessons on Manspreading

Finally, it came through. A drive against manspreading! Do not laugh at me for I’m not the one who coined that word. It’s nothing but encroaching knowingly or unknowingly upon the nearest seat destined for a fellow passenger in a public transport system. In other words, each passenger is entitled to a place to sit and he/she has to be content with the allotted area and any impingement, whatsoever, is an invasion of your neighbour’s property and privacy.

Spreading unrealistically and physically to an area supposed to have been used by another bona fide passenger is manspreading. Probably this usage opens up a possibility: men coming up with complaints that it simply aims at them.

It started in Spain a month ago with a #MadridSinManspreading. The sign that has been put up in all public transport carries a faceless male with legs and arms spread wide invading the neighbour’s seat. This should be an eye-opener to the people all over the world. We Indians also see people sitting spread-eagled and sleeping or pretending to do so, quite often. Majority of us would leave such people undisturbed, honouring their right to sleep at their own convenience.

Although there are seats assigned for ladies, seniors and the differently-abled, none bothers to respect the law in Kerala’s public transport systems. And if you are one among those privileged to sit over there, there’s every possibility of you being targeted and laughed at for your age, gender or physical shortcoming. Then you have an option of complaining about the matter to the conductor of the bus who is already struggling to conduct himself. At the most, he would shoot the ball back to you pretending he is not a party to all the scribbling you see on the bus. In other words, you yourself have to blaze the trail. Thinking about the unbeknownst fate of the war you’re fighting, possibly leading to a public disgrace, you opt for standing the whole journey.

The man who breaks the law also knows that you won’t dare invest your time and money power for an uphill battle like this. One swallow cannot alone make summer, but pray for it. There’s a masculine thought that this particular locution is not politically correct as it’s clearly aiming at males only. They claim that it’s a payback in kind for the term ‘she-bagging’ created by some men against the usual sight of women keeping all their bag and baggage beside them killing the privileges of the co-passengers. But eventually, what’s in a name if it serves the purpose?

Suresh Nellikode

(New Indian Express – October 24, 2017)Mans

Why did this stranger trust me?

Certain events, although the monetary value involved is peanuts, will not get erased from memory. This happened a few years ago and I’m sure that the man behind the railway counter would not remember it as he probably encounters many such or even better events on a daily basis.

The venue was Aluva railway station. No sooner did we reach the station did the train arrive. My friend Madhu Nair, a writer and American returnee, took the ticket and rushed along to get into it. I thought of going inside the platform to check if my friend got a comfortable seat. I headed for the ticket counter to buy a platform ticket.

When my turn came, I kept a Rs 10 note inside the pigeonhole. A disembodied voice said, ‘’No change, give me Rs 3.’’ I replied, “I’m sorry. I do not have Rs 3 as change.’’ Without a word, a ticket along with my own Rs 10 came out of the hole. I stood confused and looked at him. In a hurry to serve the next in line, he said to me, “Keep the ticket with you. Get the change from somewhere when you come out of the platform and give it to me.” I went inside looking for Madhu, but couldn’t find him. He might have got a seat somewhere. The train started moving and I waved off aimlessly at the train.

I came with Rs 3, got as balance from the platform book shop. When giving the coins to the man at the counter, I asked him, ‘’How did you know that I wouldn’t go away without giving this money?’’
A smile bloomed slowly on his face. He said, ‘’I know that the person who lined up over here and took the trouble of buying a platform ticket will not leave me in debt!’’ I said, ‘’I’m delighted at your hospitality. Thank you very much for trusting me for a ticket that has now turned priceless!’’

That made my day! From what I heard, people had stopped buying platform tickets since long. The officials also found it to difficult to check whether people are all having platform tickets. So none bothers. And none checks too.

The taxi man also told me that he had never heard of anyone buying a platform ticket and that mine might be the only such ticket sold that day. The term itself, he bets, would be quite unheard of to many of the commuters and their chaperons!

But as I noticed during my next visit, the law lives on—with a penalty of Rs 250 plus another fare charge. There’s an ailing board, subdued in colour, that still notes: Entering the platform without journey/platform tickets is punishable under law.

Suresh Nellikode

(New Indian Express – Sep 09, 2017)counter

Days With Fleas In My Ears

We had a peculiar neighbour. When I say peculiar it goes to such an extent where I used to run away from his peculiarity of sustained high-pitched tone of whining. He has something or the other always to clutch at. Either it is about the other neighbour’s black cat every morning he looks at first when he opens his main door or about the darned nuisance created by the songbirds or the cock crows waking him up early morning. He even complains about the owls blasting in and fracturing his silent nights with their unholy hoots invariably followed by a proverbial death news the following day.

The other day he happened along again. This time it was a deluge about the irresponsibility of the other neighbour lady on her black tomcat’s behaviour. He saw the ‘darned thing’ goes by his window with a dead robin in his mouth. As usual, he complained to the owner of the cat. She just laughed it off saying, ”the cat’s just acting naturally. He’s doing what God created it to do!” Needless to mention that he didn’t like her in-one-ear and out-the-other attitude towards the carnage that the beast was wreaking. Not only it ended over there but gave him a flea in his ear reminding a complaint he once made over the cacophonic chirping that begins at the wee hours and never relents until eventide. And she had sealed it up and walked off saying: Good for your sleep!

That event irritated him and he kept it with all intensity and vented the whole hot air out on me, thanks to the patient hearing I keep wearing.

talkI remember once he complained about the bloody birds returning in April from down south to make the month the ‘cruelest’ as T S Eliot opined. For him, the season of November to March provides him unbridled peace – no noisy birds, snowy and sleepy neighbourhoods, less traffic and what not….! Normally, people in Canada are eagerly waiting to get rid of the winter and welcome the advent of spring. All living creatures show up their heads more on the streets after a long hibernation by the beginning of April. Children are waiting for the Victoria Day to blow up the whole stock of their firecrackers, without any prior permission. Imagine the plight of a neighbour who is vigilant in his sleep also as to who flies over his house. He opens his door and comes out on the night of Victoria Day shouting, ”who the hell on earth are bombing the night?” No sooner he finds our children out than he creeps in shutting the door.

When all are heading for outing and camping there is my neighbour complaining about the songbirds who ate up his blueberries and then poop prodigiously on his white car forcing him to swab stoutly to get that stuff off. And I’m thinking of making an underground passage starting right down from my living room to the next junction to escape an insidious trap of listening to my neighbour’s complaints that delays my office trips.

(New Indian Express – Jun 24, 2017)



Come thy day!

Every procrastinator has a day to become a Procrastination Nanny, as they grow old!


If only an actor does a scene-stealing performance I go after his zodiac signs and lineage. That’s how John Lithgow fell into me as a much heard and talked about Winston Churchill through the series, The Crown (a Netflix hit of 2016) Up in his hat, Churchill was heavy-handed, harsh and oppressive. He loved good language but ended up in controversies many a time in some of its usages. His comments or the epigrams used could tickle any funny bones but I’m skeptic about the responses hit back. Having seen only a few episodes of The crown I became a hardcore fan of John Lithgow.

It never ends there. The two-time prime minister is being portrayed again by two more people this year. Gary Oldman’s version of Churchill will appear in the Darkest Hour in November this year. While you see a headstrong PM in the series, The Crown, mentoring the young queen, Gary Oldman is going to have a brainstorm in his film to decide whether England should negotiate a peace treaty or stand up to Hitler and his evil thoughts. The 3rd one is Brian Cox, the Scottish actor who is performing in and as Churchill of 1944 at the time of the invasion of Northern France by Allied Forces. This film is going to hit the theatres on Jun 09, 2017.

John Lithgow as Churchill in The Crown, a Netflix Series


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