The Amazing Real-Life Story Behind 'Victoria & Abdul:' The Queen and the Indian Servant Who Became Her 'Teacher'

The new film starring Judi Dench explores an extraordinary historical relationship

The extraordinary story of the close relationship between Queen Victoria and the first Indian member of the royal household is now being told.

The platonic relationship between Abdul Karim and the 19th-century monarch was one of tremendous devotion: He taught her Urdu, spent time with her at her summer house in Scotland and the two shared intimate letters.

Their closeness sparked racism and jealousy among the court and other members of the Queen’s family. But Victoria, who was just 18 when she became Queen, showed herself to be an enlightened woman who faced down her court as she remained loyal to Karim in the face of overwhelming prejudice.

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“She called them out and accused them of class snobbery and racism,” says Shrabani Basu, whose 2010 book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant inspired the new film starring Judi Dench, which opens in theaters today. “She was ahead of her time.”

Courtesy The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL

Dench reprises the role of monarch that she played in 1997’s Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, which focused on another close relationship that the Queen had after the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert.

The tall, 24-year-old Karim came to London as part of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in 1887. He soon caught the monarch’s eye, and she asked for him to be her personal attendant – which he remained until her death at age 81 in 1901.

Journalist Basu was intrigued about the story after seeing a portrait of Karim in Victoria’s grand home on the Isle of Wight, called Osbourne House. She began researching it via journals stored at Windsor Castle (gaining the permission of Queen Elizabeth’s household in the process), as well as Karim’s own diaries, which she tracked down in India. There were also 13 volumes of the diaries at Windsor – exercise books the Queen used to learn Urdu.

“It was friendship and real bonding,” Basu says. “She was a lonely queen and being surrounded by the formalities of court, and suddenly here is this young Indian and he is informal and doesn’t have these trappings. He related to her as a human being.”

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“Queen Victoria longed to go to India, but could never travel there. She longed to know about it. It was the Empire’s Jewel in the Crown. India comes to her in the form of Abdul Karim. He brings the story from the streets and tells her the heat and dust as it were, describes the festivals and the Taj Mahal and talks about politics.”

He became known as the Munshi, or teacher. “You could see the relationship growing. In the journals, there are mentions [from Victoria] of seeing the Munshi’s wife, or the Munshi’s cat has had kittens. This is the Queen of England and she’s just frequently visiting his house, [asking him], ‘Will you come up and say goodnight to me?’ All very many personal things.”

“This man was causing so much confusion in the court. They started calling it Munshi mania, and the crisis was coming alive. These two were in a bubble but the court was exploding around them. That was quite amusing to me and comes out quite well in the film. The household can’t stand him and did everything they could to bring him down.”

“He’s at the heart of the court, and this had never happened before. And what is worse for the court is that he is a commoner, not even a prince. He’s not someone of upper class stock and that is unbearable for them.”

And how does the author think Dench plays the real Victoria? “She is perfect as Queen Victoria and brings out all the emotions — the loneliness, the warmth, the compassion for the Indians. She is feisty and playful at the same time. She brings Victoria to life and gives her a beating heart.”

The real-life Victoria “was a feisty woman ahead of her time. She didn’t believe in racism and class differences. She was not afraid to take on her household and her family and the Prime Minister on this.”

For more on the real-life story of Victoria & Abdul and an interview with Judi Dench, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE.

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