Victoria & Abdul
by director Stephen Frears
I first learned about the story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim through Lee Hall, who sent me an early copy of his script. Lee and his wife Beeban, our film's producer, had come across Shrabani Basu's book, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant, which uncovered this lost story that had been hidden and buried for over 100 years. Shrabani, a journalist and writer, saw a painted portrait of Abdul in the Durbar Room on a visit to Osbourne House, Victoria's country home on the Isle of Wight. The portrait immediately intrigued Shrabani because she knew something of that quality and artistry would not have been painted of a servant, never mind an Indian man during that period in history. She began investigating and after years of research, she found journals and letters uncovering this 15-year friendship and relationship that the Queen of England had with an Indian man.
It was the humor in Lee's writing that drew me in, the idea of the Empire and the Royal Court as ridiculous but the story of the relationship was fascinating, the most powerful woman in the world and a servant, worse a Muslim servant, all kept secret for decades. The stories in many of my films occur on the line between private and public. Something that was once hidden is revealed by the film. Royalty lends itself perfectly to this idea.
There was no one else in my mind but Judi. For me, it was always Judi. She and I have worked together four times in the past—Philomena, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Saigon - Year of the Cat, and the BBC film Going Gently. There’s nothing to say about Judi. She’s the tops. This story is wonderfully relevant.
On a personal note, we gathered an incredible group of artists to make this film, including two men who are no longer with us. Tim Pigott-Smith, who played Victoria's private secretary, and our production designer Alan MacDonald. Their contributions and memories are threaded throughout the film, making it a very special project for all of us involved.