The trailer for Judi Dench’s latest film Victoria and Abdul has been promoted aggressively online of late. The movie is about a seemingly amicable, almost cute friendship between the Queen of Britain and her South Asian servant Abdul. Essentially the relationship between colonial master and servant is presented as something consensual, mutual and “friendly”.
There are problematic and overtly offensive aspects to the trailer, particularly with regards to the mentioning of famine. Unsurprisingly though, the film appears like it will gloss over Britain’s barbaric colonial crimes and racism (two things central to the colonial project), whilst presenting Empire as something rather nice and cuddly.
The role of the film is to once again present colonialism as something palatable and even nice, whilst whitewashing the image of the Royal Family and in particular that of Queen Victoria. The idea is that this is a really nice, quirky story that will be a box office hit. However, without mentioning Britain’s brutal colonial past and highlighting the horrors of Empire, the film is going to be grossly inaccurate and thus nothing more than propaganda.
Unfortunately, no one should be that surprised by this outcome, the movie is merely reflective of wider British society which always tends to romanticise India. India did after all hold a special place in the colonial imagination, given it’s title of the “Jewel in the Crown”.
Such romanticism is is often reflected by middle and upper class people who call their children “India” and talk about their love of the “Raj” whilst failing to educate themselves on the realities of Empire. Instead, these types tend to take the Niall Ferguson “but we built them the railways” approach to decoloniality.
Such people likewise tend to travel extensively to South Asia in order to “find themselves” and revel in the “spirituality” of the region, whilst sitting cross legged on a yoga retreat, believing themselves to be having a wonderful cultural experience.
Popular culture reaffirms this dichotomy and Victoria and Abdul is merely the latest example of it. Previous “masterpieces” include things like the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the obsession with Slumdog Millionaire and the popularity of the book Shantaram, an unmitigated hit amongst white people. Brits will consume all of this popular culture and not for a second consider the colonial legacies left behind by their descendants or the barbarism enacted on South Asia as a whole.
Instead, the past all seems rather nice, almost idyllic, as India continues to be presented as a place that is grossly underdeveloped, littered with “slumdogs” but still has a rather quaint charm about it.
Britain has an unresolved relationship with all of it’s former colonies and India is no exception. Last year when William and Kate ventured to the sub-continent, their presence there was similarly steeped with a crass erasure of history.
To conclude, the film looks set to play an important (albeit not new) propaganda role in terms of whitewashing Britain’s colonial past and presenting Empire as a positive thing and the Queen as benevolent and definitely not-racist. Such rewriting of history denies the reality of colonialism, which was a project underpinned by racism and masterminded by the elite of Victorian society.
Queen Victoria was head of the state at a time when Britain was brutalising peoples across the globe, she should be remembered as such, not as a cute old lady who looked after her brown man-pet.
More broadly, popular culture has long contributed to the erasure of the reality of Empire in all of Britain’s former colonies. It is important for us to be aware of this erasure when we mindlessly like Facebook videos containing Judi Dench et al.