Ali Fazal’s provocative British drama Victoria and Abdul goes to Venice Film Festival
The renowned British director, Stephen Frears -- who gave us such endearing works as My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and more recently Philomena - returns to the world arena at the upcoming Venice International Film Festival with his India connect story of Victoria and Abdul.
Dame Judi Dench (whom Frears cast in his earlier Philomena after her long stint as M with James Bond thrillers) portrays the British empress in the Venice Out-of-Competition title, Victoria and Abdul. Indian actor Ali Fazal - seen in movies like Fukrey, Bobby Jasoos and Happy Bhag Jayegi - will play a munshi or clerk in the royal household.
Essaying Abdul Karim, a clerk at the Agra Central Jail whose life lights up when he is sent to England, where he finds himself as the personal assistant to Queen Victoria, Fazal is sure to draw international media attention on the Lido, the exquisite island off mainland Venice, where the festival runs this year from August 30 to September 9.
Based on a book, also titled Victoria and Abdul by Shrabani Basu, Frears’ work will examine how a young 24-year-old Abdul soon became a close confidant of an ageing Victoria - who had recently been devastated by the death of her Scottish gillie, John Brown. Abdul neatly places himself into this vacuum by becoming the Queen’s teacher. He gives her Urdu lessons and keeps her informed about Indian political and social affairs during the turbulent 1887. Abdul’s increasingly intimate relationship with Victoria gets the royal household uncomfortable and insecure leading to a near revolt. Pitted against a raging movement in India for independence from years of British rule and a growing hostility inside the royal palace is a tender story of deep affection between an ordinary munshi and a prim-and-proper elderly empress. It remains to be seen how Frears would handle a story as delicate as this.
But having seen some of his films, one should have the least of doubt about his directorial capability. Take Philomena, for instance, which this writer saw at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. About an Irish girl, Philomena, barely 14, in the early 1950s who is abandoned in a nunnery by her family after she gets pregnant, Frears’ movie plots the suffering she had to endure. Forced to do the dirtiest of jobs there, she is separated from her baby son, allowed to see him only once a week. Finally, he, Anthony, is given away in adoption to a rich American family. For the next 50 years, the disgraced girl, Philomena, lives with the beautiful memory of her son, till one day, a chance encounter with a former BBC political journalist helps her realise that she must try and find her son. She must get her secret out.
Philomena based on a book published in 2009, worked not only as a catalyst for thousands of such “shamed” Irish mothers who also lost their children in a similar manner, but also as the basis for Frears’ daring look at a dastardly practice that even got the Vatican uneasy.
Frears - who will be presented with the festival’s Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award on September 3 just before his Victoria and Abdul premiers - has been the recipient of two Oscar nods for The Grifters and The Queen. He has had a long relationship with the festival with titles like Liam, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and Philomena having been at the Lido. One is sure his latest tryst with a tiny bit of Indian history narrated with the help of Dench and and Fazal will be as provocative as his Philomena was. Or My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get laid were.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Venice Film Festival for 18 years.)
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