Victoria & Abdul is a human story about two people from totally different strata: Ali Fazal

Seema Sinha

Oct,12 2017 14:24:35 IST

Over his nine years in Bollywood, Ali Fazal’s career has witnessed an interesting trajectory. There's been the commercial blockbuster (3 Idiots), full-fledged entertainer (Fukrey), comedy drama (Bobby Jasoos), web series (Bang Baaja Baraat), psychological thriller (Khamoshiyan), and a comedy flick (Happy Bhaag Jaayegi).

Fazal also made his presence felt in Hollywood with a cameo in Fast and Furious 7 and in 2016, he landed a huge part in the British-American film, Victoria & Abdul.  Victoria & Abdul depicts the relationship between Queen Victoria (played by Judi Dench) and the Indian servant who became her closest confidante, Abdul Karim (Fazal). The film, based on Shrabani Basu's book of the same name and directed by Stephen Frears, opens in Indian theatres on 13 October, having previously taken Fazal to Venice, London, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. “I have been travelling a lot, it has been so crazy with this kind of experience. It is the first time for me, I don’t have a reference point," Fazal says, laughing. "It feels nice that I could represent my country; how I wish I could have worn our flag. It is a proud feeling!”

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in a still from Victoria & Abdul

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in a still from Victoria & Abdul

Read on Firstpost — Victoria & Abdul: The story of the unlikely friendship between a queen and her munshi

Like many of us, Fazal too wasn’t aware of this aspect of history. “I knew very little and there is hardly anything in history (books) as the royal family hushed it up because they didn’t want that India connect,” said the actor, adding, “I researched a lot but I didn’t read Shrabani’s book — although I lied to everybody that I did [laughs] — and because of this, I ended up reading 10-11 books on Indian history. Covering everything from the East India Company, the Industrial revolution, the Victorian era, and then trying to pinpoint where this relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul happened... It was largely a human story between two people from totally different strata, and Lee Hall (the screenplay writer) had a great approach to this subject.”

When Fazal heard about the role, he recorded and sent two diametrically opposite sequences — the first time when he (Karim) is in a study with the Queen, and the scene by her bedside when she’s dying. “I had recorded these scenes on my phone; they called me 25 days later when they came down to India. They met a lot of B-town actors; many of my contemporaries who I look up to, also auditioned for the part. I don’t know how I got the role but I feel very privileged. Then I flew down to London to the studio, started reading out (the part) with different actors. The process went on for two months and I finally got the role,” said Fazal.

Fazal says he wasn't intimidated by Judi Dench — although he did have a bit of a fanboy moment the first time he met her. “She is funny as hell. When I told her that I was nervous, she said that she too was nervous. I asked her how could she be nervous after all these years, and having worked with all the greats. We clicked very well and she gave me the biggest hug though I was a stranger who had just walked in. And that is when the ice broke. On the sets, I had to be focused because she is very sharp,” said Fazal.  While talking about the film’s run in other parts of the world, he added, “People love the friendship between Judi and me. They like how we interact as we have done many interviews together, and also Q-and-As at screenings. I have become very close to her over this year-and-a-half.”

Fazal says he was completely floored by Frears, who is known for his films like High Fidelity, The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette. "Stephen is a bit of the mad, Einstein types. He trusted us so much that he held no rehearsals. We had one full cast reading. Judi and I would be running around saying, 'Can we do lines, can we rehearse, are you free...' It was like playing a game of table tennis. She would change something, then I would change something. I would try something new, she would try using that and add something more. He lets actors make choices, but at the same time he can beautifully manipulate you into getting what he wants,” said Fazal.

Interestingly, Frears compared Fazal to legendary actor Shashi Kapoor, with whom the director worked on Sammy and Rosie Get Laid Back, in 1967. "That was a huge compliment. There's a little history to it because for Stephen, Bollywood was Shashi Kapoor and at that time, sometime in the '60s and the '70s, Kapoor was the first Indian actor to ever do a Hollywood lead role. Decades after that, Stephen's coming to India and for him, Bollywood was like a full circle back to meeting me,” he said.

Fazal could feature in one more Hollywood project next year, but as of now, he is excited about his upcoming December release Fukrey 2 and Excel Entertainment's crime drama, Mirzapur — a web series made for Amazon Prime Video. “To be part of this wagon in the first lot is nice. It can take us to the world. It is great that I got another outlet to showcase (my ability) and then Hollywood happened at the same time. So it just opens up your mind to so many other things," said Fazal.

"Here, we are constantly judged, like people saying, ‘Arre, how come you have done a cameo when you have been doing only lead roles. Is something wrong, aren’t you getting work? But how come you are doing this (referring to Bobby Jasoos), it is a Vidya Balan film...whereas we do 30-second cameo roles in Hollywood films,” added Fazal, who seems to be happy finding alternatives to Bollywood. “I don’t have any family background in films. I have to work at it. I have to live out my full week and enjoy Sundays. I can’t get up on Monday and call out to my dad to say I want this or that...[laughs]. We are working class. We have to break that bubble and the Indian film industry is not the only industry in the world."

Updated Date: Oct 12, 2017 14:24 PM