It is rare that I leave the cinema deeply offended with what I’ve just seen. Yesterday, after watching the just released Victoria & Abdul, was one such day.
As a Tory government plunges our country back into an isolationist dump, so too is British film and television regressively stuck in the past. A past, however, which it refuses to honestly interrogate.
Based on true events – “mostly,” as the opening credits confess – Stephen Frears’ latest work tells the story of an unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and an Indian servant (who is shipped from India, without a say in the matter, to gift the queen with a coin).
Queen Victoria, played by Judi Dench, is portrayed as what seems to be the most woke monarch in British history; when met with antagonism about her new friendship, she is furious with her court for being “racialists” (she, conveniently, absolves herself of the accusation).
Abdul, her servant, is written with offensive two-dimensionality. In every single scene, he is unwittingly wonderstruck with the Queen. In fact, he worships the ground she walks on (literally, he kisses her feet). For she is the “Empress of India” – a fact we are reminded of over and over again.
While Queen Victoria, by treating Abdul like an exotic pet, is offered a new lease of life, what does Abdul gain? Well, as he gleefully expresses, “the great privilege” of being among the “glorious people” of the British Empire (what else?!).
His proximity to royalty and reign renders him oblivious to the horrors of British colonialism. Abdul’s compassion for the Queen doesn’t even falter at the death of his fellow Indian servant (who dies as a suffering slave, owned by the British). The final scene – at which I audibly groaned with disgust – sees Abdul, back in India, kissing the feet of a Queen Victoria statue, which reigns resplendent in front of the Taj Mahal.
Period dramas such as this are dangerous. They are pitched as light entertainment: tonally soft with a peppering of low stakes conflict – but they are rooted in the merciless grip of British imperialism. Films like Victoria & Abdul seek to absolve our barbaric behaviour in colonised countries.
The Victorian era was responsible for unimaginable atrocities in India. Indian MP Shashi Tharoor, author of Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, demonstrates how Britain economised its industrial revolution through plundering India, reducing the country’s share of the world economy from 23 percent to 4 percent.
British exploitations of India – like that of local produce, such as grain – led to unprecedented poverty under the British Raj; both the Great Famine of 1876-1878 and the Indian famine of 1899-1900 are thought to have killed up to 10 million people each.
And let’s not forget the direct killing sprees of indigenous civilians. Take, for instance, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1921, in which non-violent Indian protesters were fired at by the British Indian Army (over 1,000 dead, and many more thousands wounded).
We have a cultural and social responsibility to honourably interrogate our colonial past, even if it makes us uncomfortable. But we don’t teach our past racism and enslavement in British schools. Rather than respecting the lives torn apart at our imperialism, we mute and erase them.
Instead, we have period dramas, of which Victoria & Abdul is but one example.
And they are having damaging social consequences. As an Iraqi-British citizen, having to reconcile the destruction of my homeland at the hands of the country I now reside in, I’ve always felt excluded by national heritage cinema.
I speak to artist Ijeoma Uzoukwu, who investigates these very feelings in her practice. Ijeoma’s work collages black faces onto aristocratic white British portraiture to emphasise these tensions. When discussing her view on period dramas, she tells me: “When people watch these period dramas, they get nostalgic feelings for times they could never in a way understand.
“When the masses around you enjoy a kind of nostalgia rooted in genocide, classism, imperialism and racism, it’s harmful.”
So here’s my plea to the producers, writers and directors of British film and television. If you want to investigate Britain’s period past, please examine the racist and systemic injustices our nation is founded upon. Perhaps then, we might understand how we’ve come to live in such a divided society, and how, if storytellers did their job properly, we might even move forward.
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