By Samantha Bergeson
Photography by Shanna Fisher
Ali Fazel knows how to transport an audience. Bollywood star Fazel makes his historical film debut opposite the iconic Judi Dench in Victoria & Abdul, a modern take on Queen Victoria’s relationship with her Indian confidante Abdul Karim. The film, slated for a September 22 release, is a biographical drama based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu. The weight of the story is not lost on Fazel. “The British not too long ago left us with a constitution with a lot of stuff that was written in. You don’t really forget what went on for so many years,” Fazel said. “It’s an interesting time for this [movie] to happen… especially here in India.”
Fazel won the coveted role of Abdul after a last-minute audition in India. “I did two scenes. I didn’t forget about it but it was almost after a month before I got the next call,” Fazel explained. Yet the story itself touched him more deeply than even Fazel had anticipated. “Those just two scenes had done something. It’s a really interesting story. I didn’t even know if I’d get the part but I started to read about it.”
The casting process continued for another round in London, which Fazel had never been to before. “This was the craziest process I’ve been through for a role,” Fazel said. “The first time I met [director] Stephen [Frears] he was sprawled across a couch. He was sort of half-listening. But that’s Stephen. He’s always listening, genius.”
Fazel knew he wanted the role soon thereafter. “By the sixth or seventh reading, I felt invested,” Fazel remembered. Then I got the call of course. The casting director said ‘you’re accepted. We’d like to have you on board.’ And I remember I had her repeat that three or four times.”
Karim was only 24 years old when he arrived in England from Agra as a ‘gift from India’ to Queen Victoria. The implications of race, prejudice, and absolute power is the center point for the film. “Victoria was really ahead of her time. In a time of oppression and racism, when an Indian servant was a servant, [Abdul] was allowed to sit at the table,” Fazel said. Within a year of Karim’s meeting with the Queen, he was considered a powerful figure in court and taught the Queen the languages of Urdu and Hindi, as well as traditional Indian customs. Karim and his wife were given residences on the main royal estate as well as land in India. Karim even bore medals and carried a sword in court. There is much speculation as to the depth of the Queen’s relationship with Karim; letters between the two were often signed ‘your loving mother’ or ‘your closest friend,’ even on occasion kisses.
The close relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim made for an intimate professional partnership for Fazel and Dench. “They shared something really special. She learned Urdu for him. It makes you think, are they lovers? Was it a mother-son relationship?” Fazel explained. “I just felt Victoria was very caged….I’m not drawing comparisons but it made me think of Rumi. His writings were all for one man. He was in love with him. He had a family, he had kids, but it was for show.”
In real life, Fazel’s Queen Victoria was “so much fun,” at times even acting like a kid. “She became a friend,” Fazel said. “She’s a legend. She takes you into her arms. She is the most loved woman in Britain.”
From a professional standpoint, Fazel could not have been more thankful to have such a masterful costar. “When your costar is that impeccable of an actor—it’s Judi Dench!–it makes me look good,” Fazel joked. “I just wanted to help her. She’s a pro. She would know her lines, and therefore I would know my lines. By the end of it, I knew the whole damn script!”
Fazel fell into acting…literally. “I was at boarding school and very into sports but I broke my arm and that’s how I got into debating and acting,” Fazel explained. “The Tempest was playing at school and my friend told me to check it out.” After attending college in Bombay, Fazel transitioned from stage to screen. “I did a cameo in film that turned out to be one of the biggest hits in Bollywood.” From there, the rest is history.
Fazel’s studies continued when he was tasked to delve into the unique Victorian era. I was supposed to read the book. Fazel initially told the crew that he had read Basu’s book but later admitted to reading it only after filming. “Lee [Hall] had written a wonderful script so I wanted that perspective,” Fazel said. “But I had to read a lot more books than I imagined on the history of the 1800s. I had to know the history of before and after what happened.”
The weight of portraying a real person was not lost on Fazel; he not only wanted to understand the political climate and customs of that time but also the inner thoughts of his character, Abdul. “That was more important to me than reading– going back to finding out what this man’s thoughts were, what his habits were. Over 150 years, there are a lot of myths happen. Especially someone like that in India. I know because I’ve spoken to these people later—I’ve got versions of this, how what he was. But I at least knew I had the skeleton in place.” Fazel even practiced Karim’s handwriting from letters that the film’s art department provided.
Fazel credits the intricate costumes for the film as the best way to find his character. “The costumes really helped. I know it sounds so superficial but it’s really true,” Fazel said. Costume designer Consolata Boyle created unique period outfits that were authentically accurate. “It used ot take me an hour to get ready because they would stitch me in every time into those costumes because we couldn’t have a modern hook,” Fazel explained. “It was new, it was a new process. I was learning all the time.” The costumes were even displayed at the Osborne House from July to September.
Fazel’s portrayal of the past only pushes his future forward, with a sequel to his hit film Furnkey also being released in September. Fazel is even looking to move from India to Los Angeles. “For Indian films, I have come to a place where I can always do that even if I’m out. That’s home. I’m supported here and they’ll have me back,” Fazel explained. “I love what’s happening in L.A. and all over and definitely want to be a part of that.”
The historic racial tensions of the film contextualize the Victorian era’s strictly conservative world. Yet Fazel describes the movie as a deeper take into human nature and relationships. “Even though the film is set in [oppression], when we look past that, it’s essentially about people,” Fazel mused. And Fazel is definitely one of the people we are going to watch.