ALI FAZAL AND JUDI DENCH STEP BACK IN TIME FOR A REMARKABLE PERIOD PIECE
THE movie everyone will be talking about this week is the very good Victoria & Abdul. The 19th century historical based on real life events revolves around the remarkable friendship between Queen Victoria and her servant Abdul Karim. Ali Fazal brilliantly plays the manservant elevated to becoming the teacher of the most powerful woman in the world and delivers a career-best performance opposite internationally renowned actress Dame Judi Dench. The Stephen Frears-directed movie is based on the book by Indian author Shrabani Basu. I caught up with Ali in London recently to talk about the experience of going back in time for such a unique true story.
The trigger point for Victoria & Abdul is their first meeting. What do you recall about your first meeting with Judi Dench?
Oh God it was so similar to that. She is royalty and this was my first time in London. I did have a fan moment, but we shared notes on India and it was so amazing the way she broke the ice. She already knew so much about India having been there for the Marigold Hotel films. I remember we met for lunch in a nice little tucked away restaurant in the countryside. (Laughs) It was almost like an Indian arranged marriage introduction where the parents had set us up. From there it was just go I think.
How did you feel?
I was so relieved because it is so rare for actors to just immediately hit it off like that and it can sometimes go terribly wrong. I think she just has a wonderful sense of humour. Then we met on set and I spent nearly three months with her and it was just wonderful.
How was the process of rehearsing with a legend like her?
Oh God it was wonderful. We would be trying to find as much time as we could to rehearse our lines, including me teaching her Urdu. Stephen took me through this rigorous process of two months of auditioning, so once I got the part there were no formal rehearsals. He just said come on set and do your job. I think all the research I had to do was all on my own the one month I was here before. I was literally locked up in my room, ordering books and books, just reading. The costume fittings and art department were constantly helping me. There were hours of getting the Urdu handwriting correct, the way he would speak and walk, so it was quite a process. My favourite moments are when you and Judi are alone on screen together.
What moment do you love in Victoria & Abdul? Thank you, Asjad. I think there were some really honest moments between the two of us. I particularly liked the scene where we are dancing together. It is a really sweet scene. Just something very simple about it and yet I couldn’t have imagined shooting it that way. I pictured it totally differently, but Stephen just surprises you. He said just do the dialogues while you are dancing and swaying about. So that was a favourite.
I love how you use your entire body and really immerse yourself in the character. Did you have a particular approach?
Like I said it was just a lot of research on that particular time. I consciously decided not to read Shrabani’s book. I read it after I finished the whole film. I also wanted to see how Stephen saw the film. Lee Hall had written the script in a very fantastical way. So it was the 1800s and my research about that time had to be right. Just the way people spoke and the costumes helped my posture because they were designed in a certain way.
This whole story is surprising everyone and will astonish audiences. What part of
the story surprised you most?
The fact that he taught her Urdu for 15 years. I didn’t know. Forget Britain and the world, no one knew in India. I thought that was a little shocking and I should have known about it. It had been so conveniently erased from history. That for 15 years she at that age had the capacity to learn a new language was surprising. I have seen those letters she wrote in Urdu and it is mind blowing.
I loved the film and feel it will be a game-changer for you. How do you feel ahead of the release?
I don’t know how I feel. I remember day one at the Venice Film Festival world premiere. Judi and I were sitting together looking at each other. I am like: “I don’t wanna watch myself.” She said: “Thanks for saying that because I don’t want to watch myself.” (Laughs) We just said let’s watch each other on screen. That is how I got through the film and thought she was wonderful. I think it’s another Oscar worthy performance from her. I can’t watch myself, honestly. I really don’t know. I was nervous, but it was a huge relief after the first premiere. The London premiere was also huge and fun. This is all my first time so I am lapping it up.
What is your plan now, Bollywood or the west?
Bollywood has been home always and I think they have been really nice to me. I have a good market there now and am doing some nice projects. We have just wrapped up Fukrey part two. I am also looking at the west and feel it’s an exciting time for actors. I can only hope there are directors who find me and I find filmmakers who can push the boundaries. I am really hungry for someone to take me out of my comfort zone like Stephen did in this film. That is when you feel good about it. I am not the one waiting for the Friday (to watch the box office). I am about that whole process.
What inspires you today?
There is a lot of hate today everywhere. I think people need a little compassion. People need stories and I know it sounds really clichéd but sometimes art is the only way ahead. We have tried war, we have tried politics, but none of these are working. We had a journalist shot dead in India, so it’s not a good time in my country, we are almost scared to say things now. Every day there is hope we can make a positive difference as artists in some way or another. To be able to mould myself into whatever I am playing, love every character I am playing, I guess that is the inspiration.
One of the messages of Victoria & Abdul is tolerance because the queen defends Abdul from racism and discrimination. What lessons can we learn from it? For one thing, that she was way ahead of her time and has been totally misinterpreted by history in so many places across the globe. Yes, we went through a very rough period in India and I don’t think the movie glorifies the British Raj. It pretty much mocks it. I think the take away was that even in the middle of all that chaos, these two people from totally different ends of the spectrum found something so human about each other. They just wanted to sit and have a conversation like two human beings.
Why do you love cinema?
I think it’s a secret way of being able to play out so many lives and it’s a very selfish thought, but not really having to carry that weight of these people’s lives. Just to be able
to observe everybody; there are so many different kinds of people, you can’t just travel to exotic resorts and experience life, I think life exists inside art.