Ali Fazal, best known as the Fukrey actor, is in the thick of a career-defining moment. As Abdul Karim in the September release Victoria and Abdul, the 31-year-old actor will share screen space with Judi Dench, Michael Gambon and Eddie Izzard. Adapted from Shrabani Basu’s book of the same name, the period film has been directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen).
Fazal portrays the man from Agra who was appointed as an attendant to Queen Victoria and went on to become one of her closest confidantes. Fazal, who had a walk-on part in the Hollywood production Furious 7 (2015), drew parallels between Karim’s voyage to England and his own journey from Bollywood’s fringes to possible international fame in an interview with Scroll.in.
Were you aware of the Abdul Karim story?
I had an idea. I had watched two films on Queen Victoria – Her Majesty, Mrs Brown, where Judi Dench plays the queen, and The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt. Both films take you through the first half of her life, and the one affair she had with John Brown, her companion from Scotland. I was aware of the third chapter in her life, which was a huge thing for 15 years – her relationship with Abdul Karim. But I did not know the details until I auditioned for the role. At that time, I just read up everything I could about the relationship. It was fascinating.
What kind of research did you do for the role?
It was only after I got a call about my being onboard that the real work started, and it took a lot of time. The first question everyone had was, have you read Shrabani Basu’s book? Actually, I kind of lied. I did not want to read the book and focussed on the adaptation instead.
But I also ended up reading eight or nine books on the history of the Victorian era from 1857 onwards, post the Sepoy Mutiny. And I stumbled upon some delightful nuggets. There were little things – for instance, she was the first person ever in the world to use the telephone. Britain was in the midst of an industrial revolution and yet the Victorian culture was flourishing. So yes, I had to crunch 100 years of British history in two months of reading time. I was in a room in London where I was sleeping, reading and absorbing everything. I did not want to meet anyone or do anything else.
How did you prepare to work with Judi Dench?
With Judi Dench, you do not need to prepare much. I think I was very blessed to have someone who believes in rehearsing her lines very thoroughly and other co-actors who are also so well prepared. I made an effort to know the lines for my co-actors as well and was totally prepared.
What about the internal process, getting under the skin of Abdul Karim?
I am not a method actor. I don’t understand that. The only thing I wanted to get used to was being on a ship for a long period. I pulled some favours and spent some time on a ship to give me an idea of how it could have been. Those days, it took three of four months for a ship from India to reach England. Karim, like everyone else at the time, was on the ship for long days and nights. He spent those months studying, reading, writing. He was a learned man and a lot of things went through his mind. It was all a very new experience for him. And I wanted it keep it fresh and not mechanical. In fact, it was my first time in London as well.
There is a moment when Karim gets off the ship and looks around. Everything is new and different. We shot the sequence for two days, with one of the largest crowds in the film. It came out beautifully.
Does Karim’s journey mirror your own in any way?
It was really weird when my writer [Lee Hall] told me this. He said the way I looked at the palace in which we were shooting, my expression was priceless. I was looking up at the high ceilings and everything was so beautiful. So far I had only read about it. You feel so small in front of the empire.
So yes, there was a bit of a parallel there. My friend Sindbad Phgura has documented this parallel journey, my life outside the shoot. The film is about Karim’s journey from Agra to London. Sindbad has photographed my adventure outside the film, from Lucknow to London.
How has the film handled the unorthodox bond between Victoria and Abdul? Shrabani Basu has said that the nature of the relationship was highly unconventional and may even have been romantic.
More than the physical aspect of the relationship, the film focuses on the tenderness and compassion that the two have for each other. When you take a bowl of dal and put an alien object in it, it will always stand out.
Everyone was accustomed to an Indian being a servant. He came in as a servant and thanks to his learning and mastery over the Quran, history and many other subjects, he endeared himself to the queen and won her trust and affection. Once he reached the palace, the queen saw something different in this man.
Once you are at a certain stage in your life, love is more than just physical or conventional. It becomes more spiritual. We celebrate Rumi as the greatest poet of love, but we don’t realise all his verses were for a man.
This film does not judge. There are letters exchanged where they speak to each other as mother and son. And there are times when she wants him to hold her tight. It is all very human.
Did you think about the political ramifications of tackling such a sensitive subject?
Not while we were filming initially. But while shooting, a couple of right-wing people tried to vandalise our sets. It was handled carefully, diplomatically. They got their share of the limelight. It made me realise that we might ruffle a few feathers here and there. The story is actually above relationships. We need to open our eyes and see that sometimes it is as simple as two people sitting and sharing their notes.
It is nice to see a progressive society being allowed to delve into the past and have a version of history projected onto the present. If we keep on thinking about “Kisko takleef hogi” we cannot make films or tell stories.