Shrabani Basu Interview

Victoria & Adbul is an interesting true story that is about to be released in Australian cinemas.  I had the chance to speak with the author of the book on which it is based, Shrabani Basu, to ask about her research and the film itself…

Matt:  Can you tell us what inspired the book in the first place?

Shrabani:  I’d heard a little bit about Queen Victoria’s love for curries and I knew she had some Indian servants who cooked for her.  I travelled to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and they have an Indian corridor with paintings of Indian rulers and soldiers.  In between them was a portrait of Abdul Karim where he was wearing red, gold and cream.  He did not look like a servant so that intrigued me.  I then saw a lot of photographs of him and it was evident that he was quite special.  There was even a photograph of him placed in the Queen’s dressing room which was placed below a photo of John Brown who was also a very special person to her.  I decided to do a bit more investigating and that’s what started the journey.

Matt:  Was there any interaction with the Royal Family or Buckingham Palace in putting the book together? 

Shrabani:  My first stop was Windsor Castle because that’s where Queen Victoria’s journals are kept.  I asked for permission to access the archives and read her journals.  She wanted to learn Urdu from Abdul Karim and there are 13 volumes of journals that she wrote in that language.  No one had seen them before because Western biographers wouldn’t have understood them and so they hadn’t been opened.  That shed a lot of light on the story.

I then went to Agra, India which was Abdul’s home town.  I visited his grave and found his family who had told me about Abdul’s own journals which were being kept in Karachi.  That led to me a third country, Pakistan.  It was a long process with 4 years of research and we finally got the story in the end.     

Matt:  Was there further information that came out after the book’s release?  I can imagine it would have got the attention of many people who read it.

Shrabani:  It was actually after the first edition of the book was released when Abdul Karim’s family contacted me.  In the press interviews for book, I was saying that I had been looking for the family but was struggling because Abdul had no children.  I didn’t even have names to go with.  They reached out which is what led me to Karachi.  The book was then updated for the next edition in 2011. 

Matt:  We’re talking about events that took place more than 100 years ago and a lot of records were not retained.  Were there gaps in the narrative or lingering questions that you’d love to have known the answer to?

Shrabani:  There always are.  There’s no end to gaps you want to fill.  There was a big gap for a while when I didn’t have his diaries.  I felt I hadn’t heard his voice yet.  I picked up some from the Queen’s Hindustani journals but I wanted to know more about him, his childhood and his family life but there were no records of that.  All of that was covered when I read his journals.  Also, when I found his descendants, they were able to provide me with an oral history that had been passed down through the family. 

Matt:  It does have the appearance of a truth is stranger than fiction kind of tale.  In your opinion, what was it that created that first connection between Queen Victoria and Abdul?

Shrabani:  Queen Victoria was Empress of India and she loved the country.  She really wanted to travel there but she couldn’t because the distance was too far.  It would have taken 6 weeks by ship.  Her advisors also didn’t want her going there for political reasons.  So it was India that came to her in the form of Abdul Karim.  He was fresh from Agra and he was a young man who gave her unfiltered, uncensored stories from the streets of Agra.  He told her about the festivals, the people and the stalls.  He cooked her a curry.  She then wanted to learn Urdu and suddenly she was transported into another world.  She was getting to know India, speak the language, taste the food, and living out her role as the Empress of India. 

Matt:  It’s always tough taking a novel and condensing it into a 2 hour movie.  What are your thoughts on it?  Were you involved much during the filmmaking process?

Shrabani:  I was a consultant on the movie so we discussed the screenplay and Abdul’s character.  I did have some early concerns about how it would be portrayed on film but it was in the hands of a very good screenplay writer, Lee Hall.  I also helped research costumes and sets in my role as a consultant.  We found photos in the British Library and these were replicated for the film. 

Matt:  Judi Dench portrays Queen Victoria has someone who seems to have grown tired of her role of Queen but she still takes delight in using her power against those who have a different view of the world.  Is that the Queen Victoria that you’ve gotten to know through your research?

Shrabani:  Absolutely.  It was a process of discovery for me as well.  When I started out, Queen Victoria was a very formidable person dressed in black whose most famous line was “we are not amused”.  I then discovered a very different side to Queen Victoria through her journals and realised how passionate she was about India.  Through her letters, I could see how she fought her household, her family and the British Prime Minister in defence of the Indians.  Most of the Brits were very racist.  They used derogatory names for the Indians in their correspondence.  She fought hard against the racism and also the class snobbery.  She was a feisty old woman and it’s wonderful.  It makes her very endearing.

Matt:  Abdul Karim is such an interesting individual given his closeness and influence over the Queen.  Is his story particularly well known in India?

Shrabani:  Not at all.  Nobody knows anything about him.  I went to find his grave in Agra and nobody knew where he was buried.  It took us 3 days searching through the graveyards of Agra before we finally found it.  It was a desolate grave covered in rubble.  I told people that he was important and he was the closest confidant of Queen Victoria and nobody knew.  I felt his story had to be told.

Matt:  Do you know if the film has had a chance to screen anywhere in India yet and what sort of reaction it might have received?

Shrabani:  It is opening in Indian cinemas on October 6.  It’ll be in English so it’ll be shown mainly in Metropolitan cinemas where there are a lot of English speakers amongst the middle class.  There is a lot of interest in it.  The book was a best seller in India for several weeks so I think it’ll do very well.  Everyone is very excited.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  Are there any books we expect to see from you soon?

Shrabani:  I’m working on something that’s required several years of research.  It’s still ticking away and I’m sure you’ll hear about it when it comes out.