As anyone who has worked on any dramatic form knows, biographies don’t translate directly into films.
The film Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears and starring the unsurpassable Judi Dench, premiered in London in October. It’s richly advertised with posters depicting its two principle characters, Queen Victoria and her Indian servant and adopted favourite, Abdul Karim.
I have lived with Victoria and Abdul for the last 30 or more years. This isn’t a confession about my acquaintance with dead souls — I mean I have attempted in several formats, to write about this couple. At some point in the early 1980s Pakistani actor and savant Zia Mohyeddin asked me if I had heard of Victoria’s servant who insinuated himself into her confidence. I hadn’t. He urged me to research the subject and write him a TV play with him playing Abdul.
I began by reading biographies of Queen Victoria and found a few pages devoted to Abdul Karim and his curious interaction with the Queen and the royal household. There was no single book at the time dedicated to the story, if indeed there was a story to tell.
Zia hadn’t set me on the trail to further my education. I painstakingly (for me) pieced together Abdul Karim’s life.
Zia and his selected TV director at Central Television, who then commissioned my script, said they saw it as a dramatic monologue for TV and they prescribed the limitations on length and budget.
I then wrote the monologue, Zia performed it, Central TV recorded it and Channel 4 broadcast it under the title The Empress and the Munshi.
That led to a theatre company asking me to turn it into a twohander stage play which was triple the length of the monologue and was called Victoria and Abdul. It was performed in Britain and then in Mumbai and other Indian cities by vaunted stage actress Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal playing Victoria.
At the same time, renowned British-Indian director Gurinder Chadha discussed with me the possibility of a film on the subject. I readily agreed and began work on it, going through a few drafts of the script which Gurinder and her producer Paul adopted.
Gurinder was keen to recruit a famous American actress whose agent approved of the project, and Gurinder’s company sketched in a date depending on her availability. While we waited for this availability, Stephen Frears announced his project on the very same story. Before we could react to the announcement, the BBC agreed to fund Stephen’s film, which meant that my years of research and writing on Victoria and Abdul were, as they say ‘dead in the water’. It happens in this industry and I can only swallow my disappointment. (In Asian Age)