Tag Archives: India

The Munshi: Why “Victoria and Abdul” should focus more on Abdul Karim and the colonialism he faced

This post is about Victoria and Abdul, the latest in a long line of “special person of color befriending or otherwise humanizing a cold white woman” films. From the outset, this, a film based on the biography by Shrabani Basu, looks like a Driving Miss Daisy version of a small moment of Queen Victoria’s life. In actuality, equating it to Driving Miss Daisy isn’t actually saying the movie is bad, necessarily—there are plenty of reasons to like Driving Miss Daisy, and I’m sure there are plenty of reasons to like Victoria and Abdul. However, with that said, we’re getting a bit long in the tooth for films that make white characters out to be the classic “good white person.” Therefore, this post will be solely about Abdul and the man who plays him, Bollywood superstar Ali Fazal.

First, in case you’re interested in Victoria and Abdul, here’s the official description:

The extraordinary true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s (Academy Award winner Judi Dench) remarkable rule. When Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young clerk, travels from India to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he is surprised to find favor with the Queen herself. As the Queen questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge an unlikely and devoted alliance with a loyalty to one another that her household and inner circle all attempt to destroy. As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity.

Reading that last line—“As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity,” seems as sappy and innocuously racial as anything from Driving Miss Daisy, and after reading more about Abdul himself, it seems like much of the film’s viewpoint will be from the value Abdul brought to the Queen, not what Abdul himself thought about his situation, his standing, or England’s volatile “relationship,” if you will, with India, a place colonized and subjugated by the English monarchy, which includes Queen Victoria’s reign.

Even in Queen Victoria’s own words, it seems like she’s more enthralled by his exoticism and his being an outsider with different opinions than all the other cronies she’s used to dealing with in her circle.

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in “Victoria and Abdul.” (Focus Features)

According to Abdul’s biographer, Sushila Anand, the Queen’s letters about her conversations with Abdul were one of “[b]oth head and heart,” focusing on philosophy, politics, and other topics close to the Queen’s heart. However, Anand also writes that Queen Victoria was fond of Abdul, her munshi or teacher, because of “a connection with a world that was fascinatingly alien” and because she viewed him as “a confidant who would not feed her the official line.” One line she wrote in her journal, “I am so very fond of him. He is so good & gentle & understanding all I want & I a real comfort to me,” says everything I need to know.

She did see him as a value to her, but she’s still seeing him from a very colonial-centric viewpoint. Abdul was a fine man to talk with and befriend, but did Queen Victoria really view him as an equal as much as biographers and historians might like to make it out to be? I’m no historian, but coming from my personal viewpoint as a person who has lived under the remnants of slavery, I don’t see how she could view him as an equal and still keep India under colonial rule. She could have most certainly viewed him as a friend and confidant and most loyal of subjects, but at the end of the day, he was still a subject—someone under her law who, in his case, benefitted from the shadow of her power. Slaveowners also had dear confidants who were also slaves, but at the end of the day, they were still slaves.

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in “Victoria and Abdul”. (Focus Features)

This is just my point of view. But take the point of view of Ben Croll, who reviewed the film for IndieWire. His entire review speaks to how much colonialism shadows the film and becomes the elephant in the room the film doesn’t want to address. Croll writes that the film wants to be the breezy, Downton Abbey-esque costume drama, “[e]xcept it can’t be, thanks to that damned question of colonialism, the legacy of which is still being felt today.”

“In the film’s formation, both Abdul and Victoria are innocent actors, two parties on the far extremes of a troubling system run by callous white men…But that structure never stands up because the film never grants the slightest interest in Abdul’s perspective,” he writes. “While Dench gets a number of speeches and confrontations, dramatizing Victoria’s position as both all-powerful and basically powerless, Fazal is just asked to smile. Abdul is good-natured and charming, happily there to serve. He’s eager to teach her Urdu, or recite for the Koran, much to Victoria’s delight and her advisor’s dismay, but what’s going on inside his mind? What’s it like to go from the basement of colonial prison to a seat of Imperial power? Well, aside from the fact that he seems to appreciate the wallpaper, we never really know.”

Other reviews have reiterated the same concerns.

“[Lee] Hall’s script mildly pokes fun at courtly pomposity, while eventually treating the relationship between Victoria and Karim as a balanced friendship—when surely the truth was more difficult,” wrote Dave Calhoun for TimeOut London. “It’s pretty obvious where the power lies here, yet most of the complexities are sidelined…This is kid-gloves historical storytelling.

“…[T]he central relationship in ‘Victoria & Abdul’ never pretends to be one of equals,” wrote Owen Gleiberman for Variety. “Abdul, as a man, remains dutiful, devoted, saintly, obsequious, servile. Maybe that’s accurate, maybe not, but in a mainstream middlebrow drama coming out in 2017, it gives one a bit of pause, because it reinforces a point-of-view toward the British colonization of India that comes off as myopic, and, frankly, a little too old-fashioned for comfort.”

If there’s any reason for me to watch this film, it’d only be to support Fazal in the hopes that my watching the film would keep Hollywood interested in him and could eventually propel him to other American films. Fazal has already starred in Furious 7, which has cemented him as an international star, but a film like Victoria and Abdul could push him even further in the stratosphere. Fazal himelf seems to agree.

“I definitely feel they [Hollywood] have an eye and they have a democratic eye for talent. We’re making some great stuff here as well,” said Fazal to News18.com. “I speak for a lot of Indian actors—the new actors and the actors who have been there and doing their job and who [are] far better than so many others, that yes, Hollywood is opening up and globalizing.”

“I’m not giving them credit because they were closed up for a long time themselves but I think now because they follow protocols, they know they can’t mess with stuff. They can’t have a blonde play a Chinese woman! James Bond today can be a black person playing or a person of any colour playing. They’ve become open to that world.

What would be great if there could be a film exploring the life of Abdul as a person instead of the role he played in Queen Victoria’s life, as if he’s a talking object. However, maybe Victoria and Abdul is the launching pad for Fazal in a number of exciting roles, such as James Bond, a Star Wars Jedi, or anyone else that has been relegated to white Hollywood. So it goes.

Victoria and Abdul will be in theaters in NY and LA September 22, and will expand to more theaters September 29 and October 2.

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Hadji Demystified: Monique Revisits Michael Benyaer Interview

The first in a series of articles for: hadji

Between 2009 and 2010, I wrote extensively about Hadji Singh from The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest in a series of posts called “Hadji Demystified.” Why “demystified”? Because the kid Hadji from the ’60s might have been spectacularly acted, but the character itself was filled with tropes such as Hadji somehow knowing magic, thereby making him mystical. The mystical aspect of Hadji bleeds into popular tropes Hollywood has about Indian characters, and non-white people in general; that we’re somehow full of wisdom, magical (either literally or in terms of the value the characters bring to white characters), and are exotic specimens, not actual human beings.

When I fan out about characters, I take it seriously, and usually that means learning everything about them and their backgrounds. I did such with both the kid version of Hadji and the teenage version from Real Adventures. The teenage version affected me even more because while kid Hadji was the only person I could identify with (he was the only non-white face, the only person who ever shot down Jonny’s notions of following the danger, etc.), teenage Hadji–and the treatment his character received from the character development team–gave me a different perspective entirely.

Through my love for Hadji, I’d put it upon myself to learn more about Indian cultures and what was right and wrong about Indian representations in America. As I found out, there was a lot that could be questioned about Season Two Hadji (the change in voice actors, the heavy reliance on stereotypes and tropes, the fact that Hadji became a maharajah even though maharajahs had stopped being in power in Bangalore long before, etc.), but Season One Hadji was a character that was meant to positively represent not just Hadji as a fleshed-out character (for instance, the introduction of his last name and his devotion to Sikhism), but an aspect of the immigrant experience.

To use two quotes I used ad nauseum while writing my Hadji posts:

  • What was the inspiration for Hadji? Was he a paradigm of Eastern thought, or based on a friend in that hemisphere of the world?

I did have a great Pakistani friend at university, Tahir Attar. Educated in Europe at expensive private schools but retaining deep cultural roots. I believe, for example, that he entered an arranged marriage – quite happily. He was a perfect mix of East and West and I took a lot from him for Hadji. We did, of course, add an additonal dose of mysticism (for want of a better word), for dramatic reasons and in an attempt to keep the stories really open. (Minds, too, perhaps – but God forbid that we were proselytizing.) Yeah. Compare our Hadji with that moron in … oh, god, what was that silly robot movie? it will come to me. Or most of the silly sing-song morons which Hollywood makes of Asian Indians.
Clearly you have some knowledge of my own background – brought up in Zambia. (Tongue in cheek, Buzz, Stephanie and others said that I had a lot in common with Jonny – and, actually, I really did identify with our vision of him.) Not just in Zambia but deep in the bush. I grew up with Africans. I was an African, albeit white. When I went to Europe and, later, the US, I was stunned at the casual racism, the unthinking stereotyping, the sheer ignorance of other cultures. So, when it came to Hadji I was determined to make him real. Or as real as he could be in the context. Michael Benyaer really ‘got’ what we wanted to do with this character and that made it easier to ‘hear’ Hadji’s voice while writing. I wonder where Mike is now?
In fact, however pretentious it makes me seem, I wanted this authenticity in all the characters. That’s why we went for some rather ‘out there’ casting – and that’s why, of course, the succeeding producers undid everything and went safe. It’s pretty sad, and quite indicative of the xenophobia of our culture and the play-safe of the industry.

JQ:TRA’s Peter Lawrence on re-developing Hadji’s character for the series

“[he] is one of the few roles for an ethnic actor that is not a bad guy. I mean, how many East Indian heroes have been on television? Hadji is for the sensitive kids out there. He is the outsider in all of us.”

–Michael Benyaer (Season One Hadji) on why he loved playing Hadji for the series

The latter quote by Benyaer made it imperative for me to get his point of view on playing Hadji during the first season of Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and how it felt playing a character that had been thoughtfully approached by the development team. All it took was one simple email and some great timing for me to get my interview (I still remember that Benyaer said it was serendipitous that I’d email him right around the time he’d actually read some of my Hadji-centric writing.)

Thus ensued the following interview. We talked about acting, of course, but we also discussed the state of diversity in 2010. At that point, the type of movement on diversity we’re seeing now was just a pipe dream. But while there’s been a lot of movement, there’s still more that can be done; Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project can’t be the only two holding it down for our American Desi friends. In any event, check out the interview.

I’ve been writing about Hadji for a while, just giving my viewpoints on how Hadji is important to the entire conversation of race and culture on television, learning about different religions, etc. But now you don’t have to take just my word for it. Take it from Hadji’s own voice.

Michael Benyaer, film and TV actor, got his start in acting straight out of high school, appearing in an episode of 21 Jump Street that was filmed in his native Vancouver, B.C. Soon after, he landed his first voice acting role as Ken in Barbie and the Rockers, which garnered him quite a bit of press. “I guess people thought it was pretty funny that Canadians were voicing Barbie and Ken,” he said. He later landed roles on G.I. Joe and Reboot.

When he was cast as Bob on Reboot, Benyaer was able to add his own experiences to the character. “As the role progressed, they wrote more to what I was doing. I was able to help create the character. It was exciting to be able to help create a character.” Part of how he identified with Bob was through his favorite cartoon character, Spider-Man. “It was nice to be able to play a hero who was fallible; he was like Spider-Man/Peter Parker, someone who was thrust into his job and learning to cope with it.”

When he moved to California, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest was the job that opened him up to Hollywood. Through landing the role of Hadji for season one of Real Adventures, he was able to relive part of his childhood while befriending and learning from veteran actors. “It was very ironic to think that I watched Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a kid and that later I’d be working where they made those cartoons,” he said. “I got to meet Frank Welker [long-time voice actor who was voicing Jonny’s dog Bandit], George Segal [long-time movie and TV actor, voice of Dr. Quest] and Robert Patrick [movie actor best known for Terminator 2, voice of Race Bannon]; I’d have lunch with them every week, and just pick their brains.”

However, through the casting for Real Adventures, as well as casting for live-action jobs, Benyaer said something that mirrors what a lot of ethnic actors have to contend with. “Hollywood is…Hollywood is very specific,” he said. “Hollywood casts roles based on what you look like.”

Character art of Hadji. Hanna-Barbera.
Character art of Hadji. Hanna-Barbera.

During his tryouts for Hadji, he was aware of Indian stereotypes that were still in play. “There were actors who were using this accent like Apu [from The Simpsons], and I was like, ‘No, that’s offensive!’” Also, said Benyaer, many people in Hollywood do not differentiate between accents that originate from India and the Middle East. “To them it’s all the same,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘No, that’s a Pakistani accent,’ [or] ‘No, that’s an Israeli accent.’”

It was revolutionary, said Benyaer, that Hadji was created for the ‘60s version of Jonny Quest. “He was an early character of color that was not black or Hispanic on TV,” he said. To further push a positive portrayal of brown-skinned character on TV, Benyaer set out to bring a touch of class. “I based [Hadji’s accent] on Gandhi—someone who’s worldly with traces of a British education. I wanted to give [the role] respect. I wanted to give it some sort of class. And Peter Lawrence, the producer, responded to that. I was also allowed to add some understated humor to the character.”

Benyaer said that Hadji is very important in the conversation about race and culture being represented in entertainment. “He is the touchstone of Indian chracters,” Benyaer said. “During the ‘90s, there was no one [of Indian ancestry] on television. There was Apu, but that’s it. In 2010, there’s [Mohinder from Heroes, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy], The Cape, [Adhir Kaylan from Aliens in America and Rules of Engagement], and Harold and Kumar. Slumdog Millionaire was the movie that made everyone think of making Indian characters, and Hadji was the precursor of this.”

It is important that everyone gets represented in entertainment. “I have Asian American or Asian Canadian friends, and I ask them [about what cartoon characters they liked], and they always remember the people that looked like them in the cartoons,” he said. “Indians in Britain are more like how African Americans are here in America; Indians have a lot of representation on television. In Canada, Indians have supporting roles. It’s just in America where that’s not the case.”

As far as how ethnicities should be represented today, Benyaer is hopeful that the representations of ethnicities spans beyond more than just the character’s color or accent. “I think what we should see now are people of color that don’t have the accent of their ethnicity, like a character like Hadji with an American accent.” But, he is also glad that the number of ethnic characters on television have increased. “The quote that I said back in 1996 [about Hadji being one of few minority characters that wasn’t the bad guy]—fourteen years later, I’m glad it’s not true.”♦