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The rise of Ali Fazal

Ali Fazal on playing the lead opposite Judi Dench in 'Victoria & Abdul' and testing Hollywood waters

Ali  Fazal at Monkey Bar, Bandra. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Ali Fazal at Monkey Bar, Bandra. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In his eight-year career, Ali Fazal’s most memorable turn in the dozen-odd features he’s been in remains his minor role in Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009). In that film, he plays a good-natured, guitar-loving engineering student who succumbs to academic pressure and hangs himself in his hostel room. So when Fazal—and not someone more established in the Hindi film industry—landed a role opposite Judi Dench in the Hollywood production Victoria & Abdul, it came as a surprise.

Fazal plays Abdul Karim, an attendant who is summoned from India to serve the queen of England in the 1880s, and forges an unlikely relationship with her. The film is an adaptation of Victoria & Abdul: The True Story Of The Queen’s Closest Confidant, Shrabani Basu’s 2010 non-fiction book. It was during the making of the film that Fazal was signed by Julian Belfrage Associates, a UK-based talent agency whose clientele includes Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jude Law.

Victoria & Abdul, the trailer for which released a couple of weeks ago, opens in the UK in September—it is expected to release in India in October. The 30-year-old actor speaks about how he got the role, testing Hollywood waters and opportunities in an increasingly inclusive world of cinema. Edited excerpts:

How did ‘Victoria & Abdul’ happen?

I got a tip-off about the auditions for Victoria & Abdul. I heard the (film’s) team wasn’t in India any more, but that I should try. I recorded a clip, sent it, and they got back. After that there were a series of script readings and then I flew to London.

Victoria Belfrage, who runs one of the top British agencies, saw parts of the shoot of Victoria & Abdul and signed me up during the filming. They handle a few actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Jude Law, Rebecca Hall. - Ali Fazal

Is this film part of a plan to build a parallel career in Hollywood, given that you’ve acted in several English-language film and TV productions?

I’ve had the most confusing filmography. My first feature film was by Saeed Mirza—it never released. I had a random part in a co-production called The Other End Of The Line, which I did to earn some money in my college days at St Xavier’s, Mumbai. Some of the other co-productions were just good money.

I got to know about Furious 7 from someone. I was in Mussoorie at the time and it wasn’t even an Indian part. But I recorded a clip for the scene with my friend posing as Vin Diesel’s character and sent it to them. I did a tiny Indo-US indie which is playing there right now called For Here Or To Go? I play an immigrant techie working in Silicon Valley. But there was no strategy that I want to do international films—I was keeping an open mind.

Victoria Belfrage, who runs one of the top British agencies, saw parts of the shoot of Victoria & Abdul and signed me up during the filming. They are a boutique agency and handle a few actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Jude Law, Rebecca Hall. I asked, why do they want me? My producer told me to just jump in. Now I have an American manager and a publicist in L.A. An ecosystem has come out of nowhere.

Tell us how you approached the character of Abdul. He shared a strange relationship with the queen.

It was a weird relationship which nobody could understand. They were friends, lovers, mother and son, and these are from actual letters, and not interpretations. She would write, “The Queen misses her Munshi (she would affectionately call him that), hold me tight." Those are big words coming from the queen. It’s intimacy at another level. He was advising her on political matters.

Ali Fazal and Judi Dench in ‘Victoria & Abdul’

How did you prepare for the role?

I generally make fun of method acting but this was a biopic and I had to do some research. I read a lot of books for two months—generic stuff on Victorian history, books on the post-mutiny and pre-Renaissance period. I read the queen’s personal physician’s account of her. I deliberately didn’t read Basu’s book because I didn’t want to get influenced.

Does your getting cast in a film like this mean there are more opportunities for Indian actors in international cinema today?

I think it’s a good, bold move by big studios such as Universal Studios and BBC, the producers of Victoria & Abdul. Suddenly there is a possibility that an Indian can play a lead in an American movie.

I don’t think it’s a phase or the next cool thing to do. You can’t get away with white people playing native Americans any more. There’s a lot of colour-blind casting happening right now. In the future, people are going to look at a part—say, James Bond—as something a person of any ethnicity could play.

What’s the main difference between the way Hindi cinema and Hollywood work?

There’s the work ethic. For instance, we got late by one day submitting a voice recording for a new TV show I was keen on. And the part went away.

You have to be on the ball. But mainly, I think, the difference is in the technology. I witnessed the most magical thing during Furious 7, where Paul Walker was created out of nowhere. I had done a scene with him and without him. There was a “Paul puppet" that The Hobbit special effects team was working on. They used his brother Cody Walker to build it. They put him in a globe-like object for 12 hours and asked him to make all kinds of expressions while tiny cameras recorded every single twitch of the skin. They took everything they could take from Paul’s previous movies. It was a collaboration of graphics, animation and genetics. We saw the process in Abu Dhabi and it was madness.

How are you planning to balance your career here and in the US?

Mumbai is home. There is great stuff happening here. Recently I had to let go of an excellent Web series I’d kill to work in. There is Fukrey 2 coming up. I would like to bridge Hindi films and Hollywood, rather than try to make a career in one place. Having said that, I could end up with nothing in Hollywood.

You were an athlete in school and studied economics. How did you get into the movies?

The first story I remember isn’t Aesop’s Fables or King Arthur but a story my mother told me about a certain mafia family in New York: The father runs a big business and the youngest son, who was in the army, comes back.

I was always obsessed with movies but I didn’t think of it as a career till class X. I was heavily into sports—basketball, hockey, shot put. I injured my arm in the middle of a match, and life as I knew it was over. I was told to try a Shakespeare play in school and I did it to impress this beautiful hippie girl. I got the part and my first high-school romance. The play started winning awards and one thing led to another.

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