Bollywood actor Ali Fazal on working with Judi Dench in his upcoming Hollywood release, Victoria and Abdul, aspiring to stardom and how art needs to engage with politics.
Your upcoming film, Stephen Frears’s Victoria and Abdul, explores the relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim. How’d you land the lead role?
I got a tip off — someone told me that the casting for the film was happening and Stephen Frears was at the helm of the project. I got in touch, sent a tape for the audition and forgot about it. After the first tape was sent, a lot of back and forth happened and they finally zeroed in on me. Sometime last year, Beeban Kidron, the producer of the film (known for Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason), gave me a call and asked me to be on board.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you read Shrabani Basu’s book, which the film is based on?
No, I didn’t read it until after the shoot was over, and it was a conscious decision. Lee Hall, the writer of the film, had written the script in a certain way, and I wanted every ounce of me to be influenced completely by it. But I ended up reading many other books that dealt with the history and the topic even in the remotest way possible; the Victorian era, the Mutiny, the industrial revolution, all the way up to Independence — even though that isn’t really related to the film. read a book, written by Queen Victoria’s doctor. A chapter in it was called ‘The Munshi Mania’ — how everyone was unhappy with this servant who was being treated like an equal and almost knighted at one point. the art department of the film had put in a lot of work. They required me to learn how to write like Abdul Karim: his Urdu handwriting, signature and his English handwriting.
Queen Victoria never visited India despite being the empress of the country and a lot has been said in the past about it. Did your perspective of things change during the course of the film?
It did change my perspective, but not radically. The film does not glorify the Victorian reign. It’s true that Queen Victoria never bothered to visit India, which is why Abdul is sent to London to present her with the country’s mohar (the Indian coin). t there were other things that changed my perspective. Reading makes you gather legitimate information. I understood that she was ahead of her time, which is probably why the relationship was not understood by the royal family. I read about her relationship with John Brown, her first affair. However, she was also a woman who wore black till the end of her life because she was a widow. Before she died, she requested that she wanted everything to be white the day she died. So, the only time the UK saw white and death together was the day she died. She was the first woman to make the first telephone call, and lived at a time when there were so many discoveries happening.
How was your experience of working with Dame Judi Dench?
It was lovely. I couldn’t have asked for more. We really struck up something nice, or, at least, I’d like to think so. We met over lunch the first time and then we spent a lot of time together. We’d go for long walks, talk and rehearse a lot. Stephen, as a director, was confident. I think that’s why the audition process was so long. He wanted to be confident that the interactions would work. I had studied the script so well that I knew it inside out. I owed it to her because she comes from that background (theatre) where you need to know your lines really well. Also, something really interesting happened. There’s a quote by the iconic actor Spencer Tracy — ‘Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture’. left for London, Naseeruddin Shah gave me this advice. Once there, Judi Dench told me the same thing. It was so weird! I guess, good actors are always on the same page.
What are the core differences in the way a Hollywood film and a Bollywood project work?
This is the first time I’ve worked in a project such as this and it’s the best thing I’ve been through. ink the larger productions in India are very methodical and pretty much on the ball in terms of work. When I say work, I mean pre-production and the homework that’s required. On-set ethics are something that we’re conditioned to, and we’ll take time to fall in line. ere, the producers put in a million dollars and still call it a low-budget film. Here, we make films for much less. Sometimes, things go wrong as quality is compromised due to lack of money. Also, technologically, Hollywood is far ahead because we started much later.
There was also this marvellous way Stephen directed me. I can’t compare that to anyone back home. It was this beautiful manipulation, where he let you arrive at a preciseness by nudging you in the right direction. In Bollywood, we are told exactly what to do and how to do it, and, not to counter things by saying there’s a better way. We make our actors feel important by paying them more. But the real deal is when you let the actors take some decisions on the sets.
The audience has seen you in 3 Idiots, Fukrey and Happy Bhaag Jayegi. Were these conscious choices or were you taking up any project coming your way?
Sometimes, I had to take them because things were not coming to me. Some of them were conscious choices. Some of them were not positioned right. Khamoshiyaan was one of the best scripts I read, but it just didn’t work. Saeed Mirza was the first man to cast me in my debut, Ek Tho Chance (2009), which still hasn’t seen the light of day. Then, it was Always Kabhi Kabhi (2011), produced by Shah Rukh Khan, which bombed badly, so it was heartbreak after heartbreak. But these things happen. I relied on advice from people like Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Farhan Akhtar, who’ve been mentors. That helped.
How did films happen to you?
The way mothers tell fairy tales to their kids, my mother told me a story about this cool Italian family in New York. She was narrating the story of The Godfather. This was the first thing I heard as a story. Also, I was a very attention-seeking child and lied a lot. I would come up with crazy lies and tell my mother the next day that it wasn’t true. I did theatre in boarding school (Doon School, Dehradun) too. In the beginning, it was because I had broken my arm and couldn’t play any sport, and later, because I had begun to enjoy it. But I always wanted stardom.
Has the dream changed — from wanting to be a superstar to being a good actor?
I think it’s a mix of both. I got spoilt while working on Always Kabhi Kabhi. There was song and dance in it and that perpetual feeling of being a superstar; the biggest superstar was producing it. Of course, there was a matter of too many cooks and a spoiled broth: eventually, that film didn’t work. But I haven’t been able to crack the formula. Stardom is beautiful, something we all crave for. No actor will tell you that he only wants to be a good actor and not a star.
Do you think artistes need to engage with politics?
Yes, absolutely. We have the responsibility to endorse, speak up and engage with the democracy. The point is to not be scared. That’s the sad part now, because people are (scared). It’s horrible when actors say that they are apolitical. This is not the time to be apolitical. Every frame of every film is from a particular time. So, if you make a film in 2017, the times can’t not have a bearing. I would like to think that I am involved.