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Ali Fazal: As natural as it gets!

By Armin Sethi Sunday, Sep 24, 2017 01:11: PM

The great thing about Ali Fazal is that when you sit down to chat with him, you feel like you are talking to somebody who is as natural on screen as he is off screen. He is passionate about his work, but humble and down-to-earth about his talent. When Ali Fazal came to Toronto for TIFF for the premiere of Victoria and Abdul, we sat down and spoke to him about the part of history that had just been discovered and his own discovery in the process.

Victoria and Abdul is a lovely film. It has the right comic timing between the main characters. And your character has this innocent look in his eyes. How did you maintain such innocence given the nature of the film?

Training, I guess (laughs) – I’d like to think. It’s what the script is and in large part, it is how I perceived Abdul to be. It’s daunting when you walk into a new place, a big place, especially in times like those. You know, the royal palace, the order – like you’re dirt, you’re nothing. You’re just looking up and you can only go up from there. And you see his confidence build up, of course, through the film. I hope, I don’t know (chuckles). It is also not very different than what a lot of people are facing today. Look at our lives – we come to new countries, big countries, and you have to be humble about it. You can’t walk into a new place and be all cocky, and be like “hey, hire me.” But, a large part of it was, of course, that it was a real person and I have to love who I play. I think innocence is the only way to start something as honest as that. The relationship was something very unique and very honest, because it was respect and intellectual stimulation of some kind, it was love, it was very confusing actually.

When you think back to your process – you talked about this being a real person in history. Where do you draw the line between balancing the truth of the real person and managing your own creative liberty?

Wow. I think it is a bit of a thin line, but also a bit of a hazy line. Because, in this particular case, there wasn’t much on Abdul. It’s pretty sad. Actually, it’s unfortunate that history has, very conveniently, erased this entire part of history, on both sides actually. Then, in 2010, some 130 years after, information was trickled down. Obviously, the journals and letters were a big validation. The writings, the Urdu, and the English was a huge help, because of Shibani’s work.

So did you read the book?

That’s where I drew the line – to answer your question. And a confession: I lied about reading the book when I began the film (laughs). I started reading the book and I had to consciously stop myself. Because the script and screenplay had a fantastic approach. There is no timeline in the film. The costumes tell the time. There was something majestic in this film. The team worked so well together collaboratively. So, yes, some I read about Abdul but I brought a large part of me in it though because otherwise, I’d be lying.


There is a certain grandness to the film. Was the set daunting? Was it daunting working with Judith?

At first, I guess. It was actually my first meeting with Judi, and it was all good from there. She was just so lovely. I walked into a lunch meeting with her and it felt like a blind date set up by our parents. It’s not very different than setting up an arranged marriage you know. So she sort of comes in and she gives me the warmest hug ever. She didn’t have to. She is Judi Dench. She’s the biggest star. But she did. And then we just started sharing notes about India. And, of course, her time in India.

It was also so flattering because she had done her homework and she knew about Fukrey and my films. Like she didn’t have to. But from there, the ice broke and it was easy. Judi is the epitome of royalty for me. I mean, with her, the palaces and the four hundred people didn’t matter because I just felt safe with her. I became pretty shameless about things because it became a safe place. For me, as an actor, it is not intimidating. As an actor, I’m hungry – it’s like nectar – to have someone better than me, like Judi Dench. Selfishly, it makes your job that much easier. You have to do half of what you probably had to do.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is when she says she wants to learn “the Hindu”. You know, that entire scene. Those moments seemed very special to me in the film. What was your favourite moment between the two characters or off-camera?

Off-camera, it was honestly the tea and scones and the long walks we had. I have this one Polaroid with Judi where we are just sitting in a park and having tea and it was great. It was a memorable moment because we spoke about so many things that day. It was almost a parallel story to that of Victoria and Abdul that happened with the two of us.

In terms of TIFF…

I love it, it’s my first time.

What has the experience been like?

No sleep (laughs). But honestly, I’m loving it. We were partying last night. I was at a number of events and it has been a huge roller coaster. We flew in the day before the premiere but I am not just registering anything. I’m just going through it.

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