Actor Ali Fazal On Sharing Screen Space With Judi Dench in Victoria And Abdul
A few weeks ago, I happened to catch the trailer of Stephen Frears’ directorial offering Victoria & Abdul that tells the tale of the unusual relationship between a queen and a commoner. The peek has piqued my interest, the lead characters — the Oscar-winning Dame Judi Dench plays one of the titular roles, while the other is assayed by home-grown actor Ali Fazal — providing ample reason for me to make a ‘must-watch’ mental note.
Interacting with the 30-year-old Fazal soon after, on his visit to Mumbai, I rewind to our first encounter with the Lucknow-born artiste — one that occurred a couple of years ago, when he had done a shoot for Verve. I point out that, since then — in fact, from the time of his first appearance on celluloid in The Other End of The Line in 2008 to his 2017 role in Victoria & Abdul — his career has followed an interesting, non-linear trajectory. Fazal admits, “A lot of stuff has happened in the interim years — good and bad. I have learnt a lot and definitely grown. I never studied acting and entered the industry as an outsider.
But, the more you work, the more you learn. And I am very happy that so early on in my career, I have chanced upon a movie like Victoria & Abdul.”
Interestingly, Fazal did not read Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul — The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant till after he had finished shooting for the film, even though he spent hours on research. He says, “Lee Hall has written a brilliant script. And for my preparation, I went through about 10 to 11 books on the period. I would be holed up in my room, just reading and playing video games. I ferreted out a host of facts and details about that time — what came before and after the industrial revolution, the mutiny, about the time trains were introduced in India but were not meant for the locals, about Queen Victoria’s first phone call ever and so much more. I used to make fun of actors losing their mind over stuff, but I almost got there. And the day after the shoot finished, I picked up the book to read it.”
Understandably, slipping into Abdul Karim’s (Fazal’s character) skin took a lot of preparation. On the art of getting into character, he opines, “When you are playing a real person, you have to find out what he was like. With a fictional character, you have the job of creating the personality. Both are challenging in their own ways. I am always observing people, so perhaps that helps me make my roles seem real. I love talking to different people; I feel much like a thief who steals their qualities and mannerisms from them.”
The relationship between the ruler and her favourite attendant Abdul forms the crux of the movie. Fazal describes it as being ‘spiritual’. He rewinds, “There are letters which reveal the different facets of their bond. In some cases they wrote to each other with weird sign-offs; a letter might say ‘from a mother to a son’, another would refer to the queen missing her munshi…and these were exchanges between the biggest monarch of the century and her servant. Though intimate — with an intimacy that two lovers, two friends and a student and teacher have — they were not perverse. They make you wonder. And that is probably why the royal family has never spoken about the bond. So it is time that the tale is told.”
Being in the same frame as Dame Judi Dench did teach Fazal a lot about his work and life. When I ask him what the experience of shooting with her was like, he states, “It was beautiful. I was so happy; I was really on top of the world. I was nervous the first time I met her, which was at lunch just before the shoot began. That is where we broke the ice and my fan moment happened. But, we soon began talking about the family and we switched into our characters. I was just hungry to learn from her. To be able to bounce ideas off someone like her, it can’t get better than that. The better my co-star, the better I perform. She is a great actor and has made me look good. In some places, people might think I’ve done a good job, but it is because Judi’s done a far better job. I wish someone had documented our time together. She is one of the most loved people in Britain. But she is also like a kid and I have had fun with her.”
Over the years, Fazal has been seen in roles small and big on the silver screen — 3 Idiots (2009), Fukrey (2013), Bobby Jasoos (2014), Khamoshiyan (2015), Happy Bhag Jayegi (2016) and more. And, yet, he has not carved any one niche that could be said to be his forte. He admits thoughtfully, “With different films, I think I have confused people! Once, I remember, when I was sitting on a set, the producer told me that I had a very confused ‘genre’. And that is something that is very scary for producers and directors who do not know how to cast you. So, unless you cultivate one image, almost like one hairstyle, they do not know how to slot you. And it is sad that it takes a Victoria & Abdul for everyone to sit up and take notice of me. For I love Bollywood, this is home and I am very excited about my next two projects — I cannot talk about the details right now or I will get fired. But what I can definitely say is that they will change all perceptions about me.”
The boy who completed his schooling in The Doon School in Dehradun does not remember fostering serious dreams of becoming an actor in his childhood even though he would build scenarios in his head and act them out. In fact, he was a keen sportsperson and, having played basketball at school, nurtured an ambition to represent India in the sport. An accident while playing rewrote his destiny. Fazal remembers, “I broke my arm and couldn’t play but since I was at boarding school, I had to do something. The set-up there is such that you cannot sit idle. My focus shifted from sports — hockey, basketball and athletics — to debating. Once the Shakespeare play The Tempest was being staged. I was selected to play Trinculo and that was also the time my first school romance happened. I started winning awards and developed a passion for acting and theatre. I thought it was cool that with my performance I could move people — I could see every twitch of emotion on their face change.”
His route to Hindi cinema was, albeit unwittingly, via foreign projects, for Fazal’s first project was the James Dodson-directed rom-com The Other End of the Line — which did nothing for his career — before appearing in the American television miniseries Bollywood Hero (2009) as Monty Kapoor. An eye-catching cameo in 3 Idiots was followed by Always Kabhi Kabhi (2011). The latter should have injected some zing to his career but it bombed. Fazal states candidly, “I was picked by Shah Rukh Khan for the lead role in this musical. I spent a year and a half on it and it didn’t do well; I realised for the first time that every Friday decides if you are everything or nothing. I decided to take one step at a time and I have had some great mentors like Aamir (Khan), Shah Rukh, Farhan (Akhtar) and Ritesh (Sidhwani).”
When I ask him if he has any regrets about his choices and not making it to the big ‘hero’ league with his first few films, he admits, “Of course, I regret some things. But then I have also made some great decisions and I am in a place today where people are ready to take risks with me. I am doing leading parts and it’s a good feeling.”
Fazal was spotted by Rajkumar Hirani, the director of 3 Idiots, during a play. But, the actor says that he no longer performs on stage even though it still excites him. “They are totally different worlds, demanding different skill sets. I have seen some theatre actors do the most horrible jobs in cinema. But theatre does give one the confidence to face an audience. Unfortunately, most people use it as a step towards the movies. After doing films, I went back to theatre to do the absurdist White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, written by the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, the first time it came to India. It is a play that is performed worldwide without rehearsals — the actor sees the script for the first time at the performance itself. Every single instruction is written on the script. This is something that excited me,” he states.
A natural question that is often posed to Fazal is ‘How are Indian actors perceived abroad?’ With actors eyeing a slice of the global pie, one wonders if they are going beyond the stereotypes. Fazal feels the scene has changed in recent times and talent from the Subcontinent is getting its due. He underlines, “Somewhere we are doing something right. Today a person of different colour can be approached to play James Bond. It will take time but it is genuinely happening. It’s a good time for actors and directors from India. Things like Amazon and Netflix have helped. Everyone can see you here and appreciate the talent that is available. Indians are great actors, we have great cinema.”
And with Victoria & Abdul, Fazal is poised to become the flavour of the filmi season. When I ask him, what is the greatest satisfaction that life as an actor has given him, he states, “I get paid for bullshitting. There is this mean little fellow in my head that laughs, ‘I got you!’ every time I pull off a job. Jokes apart, the greatest satisfaction is to be able to play different people, live different lives in one life. I am one person and suddenly I am playing a host of characters. Some of them do take their toll on you. It is almost like a jigsaw puzzle where pieces from characters become a part of you. You have to live with those pieces. But I think we overhype the word actor; we put our actors on pedestals. We all want to live normal lives. But, we have our quirks, our OCDs — we are living in a bubble. What keeps me going is reinventing myself. I do not see my films. I ‘see’ them through the eyes of people who have watched them and given me feedback. And if I weren’t an actor, I would probably be a teacher or be working in a restaurant.”
Through our chat, he has come across as confident, and yet as someone who expresses diffidence with almost every third sentence that he utters. He remains non-committal about his personal life, even though he admits, “I am dating someone. But we are only on our third date. Isn’t it too early to say where it is heading?”
And when I ask Fazal to describe himself, he states, “I would say that I am fun-loving. I read whatever and whenever I can. I love sports, I love to mend things. I have a fear of spouting philosophical cliches. Nobody wants to do that but we all tend to do it, we love flaunting our little brains!”