How a writer found a royal friendship that got turned into film

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Victoria
Judi Dench and Bollywood star Ali Fazal play Queen Victoria and her manservant Abdul Karim in new film.

Forthcoming film Victoria and Abdul shines a light on a chapter in history that the British monarchy tried to erase. The film starring Dame Judi Dench and Bollywood star Ali Fazal revolves around the remarkable friendship between Queen Victoria and her manservant Abdul Karim. The way Indian writer Shrabani Basu unearthed the story for her book, on which the movie is based, is just as fascinating.

The 54-year-old stumbled on the story during a trip to Queen Victoria’s palatial holiday home on the Isle Of Wight, Osborne House, where she saw several portraits and a bust of an Indian servant called Abdul Karim. What sparked her interest was that he was made to look like a nobleman.

After five years of research, she unearthed the amazing story of a 24-year-old former Indian Muslim clerk who was given to the queen as a golden jubilee gift in 1887 and became her closest confidante for the final 13 years of her life. The bond troubled other royals so much that they tried to erase him from history by burning letters the pair wrote to each other, removing mentions of him from the queen’s journals and deporting him to India straight after Victoria’s death.

They succeeded in keeping the story hidden until Shrabani went to Windsor Castle and asked to look at Queen Victoria’s Hindustani journals, a collection of exercise books in which she had learned Urdu from Abdul. Those who had tried to wipe Abdul from history couldn’t read Urdu so missed the treasure trove of information the monarch had left.

Shrabani translated the journals and found a bond between Victoria and Abdul that showed a whole other side to her personality. This started a hunt for further information that took the writer to Abdul’s home in Agra and tracking down descendants in Karachi, where she found a trunk in their attic containing his untouched personal journals.

Through painstaking research she revealed a tender bond between individuals from different countries, cultures and age-brackets.

She found hidden moments from history including letters from the queen signed off as, ‘your closest friend,’ and ‘your loving mother,’ evidence of the manservant starting the queen’s love for curry, her sticking up for him when he was racially abused and him receiving an untold number of valuable gifts for his friendship.

The research was compiled for her book Victoria and Abdul, which has now been turned into a movie that will be released on September 15.