“The uncertainty,” says Ali Fazal of what drew him to to his latest project. Fazal, a successful Bollywood star at home in Bombay, is attempting to cross over to American cinema with “Victoria and Abdul,” in which he stars opposite Judi Dench in the story about the friendship between Queen Victoria and her much-younger Indian clerk, Abdul Karim.
“It’s this weird mysterious relationship they shared with each other,” Fazal, 30, says. “The fact that she decided to hole this entire topic away and not talk about it. It was sad that nobody knew — even as an Indian, even as someone who is not very far away from where Abdul used to be, I knew so little. I thought it was a relationship between these two people who shared something – they intellectually stimulated each other and I thought that was beautiful, because they were from different cultures, they are from different backgrounds, different statuses — nothing in common. But as you look closer it was spiritual, and that’s what brought me” to the project.
It’s not the first film to look at Queen Victoria’s relationships with her servants — nor is it the first time Judi Dench has starred as the monarch. She also starred in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown” with Billy Connolly, which told the story of Victoria’s relationship with her servant John Brown after her husband Prince Albert died. It earned Dench an Academy Award nomination.
The latest movie, which premiered over the weekend at the Venice Film Festival and will make a stop at the Toronto Film Festival before opening later in September, is the first big American project for the actor, who was born in Delhi and now calls Bombay home. “That’s where Bollywood is, and that’s where I’ve been working,” he says. “Bombay is home, it’s always going to be home, and it’s a market that is very used to me. But I guess eventually, you never know right? I might be moving out [to L.A.].”
WWD caught up with the actor before the Venice premiere.
On how he learned of “Victoria and Abdul”: “It was hectic — I got tipped off by a business associate of mine and she said ‘There’s this thing happening, you should come try out.’ They called me back after months and they were scouting in Bombay, and I thought that was a big step forward for a movie like this, from a team like this. To come out to India and look for someone authentic.”
On the desire to branch out from Bollywood: “The thing with Bollywood is I have done a lot of stuff now so auditions don’t really happen — the job for me is now to be able to say no to the right projects in Bollywood, to be able to pick the one, because I do get offers now. [Auditioning] sometimes brings you back down to earth and it makes you work the way you’re supposed to, for a part. And I like that process. It was good, it was rigorous and fun.”
On what he found while reading through Victoria and Abdul’s letters: “There were these two letters — one letter was by Queen Victoria, in impeccable Urdu, and a letter by Abdul in beautiful handwriting, in English. It was almost like a role reversal. It was just ironic. And that just sums up everything for me. It was 15 years of him teaching her that, them arriving at that.
“The way she signed off was so interesting — there were some letters where she would say ‘my dearest friend’ and in others she would say ‘come back, hold me tight.’ These are intimate words for a monarch to say to him. Then in another letter she would write ‘my loving son’ and it just throws you off. And that’s when I realized that I was constantly trying to put it in a genre, and that’s what you’re not supposed to do with it, I guess. You’re just supposed to leave it.”
On working with Judi Dench: “There should be a Wikipedia page on that. She is a sweetheart, that’s what she is. She’s a sweetheart, she’s a child and she is whack. I swear.”
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