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Ali Fazal: 'If my co-star is a better actor, my job is half done'

Ali Fazal talks about 'Mirzapur' season 2 and working with a star-studded international cast in 'Death On The Nile'

Ali Fazal as Guddu in 'Mirzapur'
Ali Fazal as Guddu in 'Mirzapur'

Days away from his 34th birthday, actor Ali Fazal is staring down the track at two highly anticipated, big-ticket releases. Fans have been waiting eagerly for the second season of guns and gangland drama Mirzapur, in which Fazal reprises his role as the lumbering Guddu Pandit. The series will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on 23 October.

Across continents and seas, he will be seen playing Andrew Katchadourian in Death On The Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh (scheduled for a December release). In this English-language murder mystery based on the Agatha Christie novel, Fazal is cast alongside Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Annette Bening and others. This will be the Fukrey actor’s third international project, after Furious 7 (2015) and Victoria And Abdul (2017). Edited excerpts from an interview:

What can you tell us about ‘Mirzapur’ season 2?

I must confess that I have not even seen the first season in its entirety. But it is hard to match up to something as successful as season 1. All I can say is that there are many more layers this time and the stakes are very high.

When you spend so much time on something, like the character of Guddu, you tend to lose perspective. As an actor, the clear choice I made this time was to fashion a jump in his maturity. I felt he was a lazy person before—not dumb, but lazy. It’s the same family after all, where your father is a smart, hardworking lawyer, mother has very interesting theories and ideologies of her own, his sister is sharp and his brother was the brains. But this boy was interested in something different, but now things have changed and he can no longer take a back seat. He has been forced to follow his instincts and use his brains. I don’t know how it has finally translated but I believe I have latched on to the emotions.

What was it like reuniting with this ensemble cast?

I treasure this bunch—the actors and the directors Gurmmeet and Puneet, who are the brains behind this piece. I have known Pankaj Tripathi since Fukrey and I can sit and listen to him for hours. Then there are Shweta and Harshita. We really missed Vikrant (Massey) in season 2. There are some new cast members, like Vijay Varma. He is the sexy element in the world of Mirzapur.

You are one of a clutch of Indian actors who is successfully straddling careers in India and the West.

I was lucky that when season 2 of Mirzapur finished shooting, I could go to London to shoot Death On The Nile. It was a total jump from Urdu Hindi to British English and Agatha Christie. In fact, it was a total shift in everything.

Were you familiar with the world of Poirot?

The first Agatha Christie book I read was Death On The Nile, but I read it only when my director gave it to me. However, I have grown up with Christie because my mother was obsessed with her. While I never read any of her novels, I knew everything about Christie’s world.

How do you feel when people write off your appearance in a trailer or film as ‘blink and miss’?

As Indians we feel that whenever one of our artists does some work in the West, it often is a blink-and-miss role. This is why I don’t toot my own horn before a release. My last film international film was Victoria And Abdul, which was three years ago. So I cannot be centre stage in the trailer. I am very proud of the movie. Ken managed to handle eight or nine of us and I was probably the smallest fish among giants like Gal Gadot, Russell Brand, Armie, Annette and Dawn French.

How have you managed to do this when so many others have faltered?

You need a great amount of confidence in your own ability. I know there is a reason I have been cast in that part. I don’t like signing up for projects that are predictable. I play off other people a lot and if my co-star is a better actor, my job is half done. Mirzapur is hardcore, with a Banaras accent, whereas Death On The Nile required a heavy British accent. If you can do a little paddle shifting, then you can create something convincing. If not, well then audiences are pretty ruthless these days.

What else is brewing professionally?

I will be shooting a war biopic, Codename: Johnny Walker, in Los Angeles next year and there are a few things brewing in India too. I have also started Malayalam classes, which I am really enjoying. I am obsessed with the films coming out of Kerala. I really look forward to working with people there. Besides that, I am getting to read a lot of scripts. Unlike in the past, I am no longer doing things out of desperation, but I am being selective and careful.

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.

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