It is a royal story that was nearly erased from British history nearly 130 years ago.
In Victoria & Abdul, Dame Judi Dench stars with Ali Fazal in this touching story about Queen Victoria and her trusted munshi advisor Abdul Karim. The unlikely friendship sparked friction in the palace amongst the trusted advisors, palace staff and the Prince of Wales.
It is based on a true story written by Shrabani Basu. The film is directed by Stephen Frears and also stars Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins and Olivia Williams.
LRM had an exclusive phone interview with Ali Fazal on his experiences and knowledge of playing a character nearly erased from history. He also talked about working with Dame Judi Dench and being one of the few people to film at actual locations in Britain.
Victoria & Abdul is playing nationwide in theaters.
Read the interview transcript below.
LRM: Tell me on why you were attracted to this film Victoria & Abdul.
Ali Fazal: It was nowhere to be found in history. It was conveniently chopped out or rather as brushed aside. I grew knowing nothing about this relationship. I only knew that there was one Indian who managed to go to have something with the Queen. This is the last phase of her life. This was almost fifteen years all the way to her death. No one seems to know anything about it.
It’s like a can of worms that had been opened up. You’ll see this wonderful and confusing relationship. You can’t really put a finger on it. It’s so layered.
LRM: So when you first were offered the part, did you do any personal research yourself into this matter?
Ali Fazal: Well, I had to. There were so little [information]. I started reading the book that Shrabani [Basu] had written. I had to stop [reading it], because Lee Hall had written a different approach to the story. The script had this fantastical approach that he had.
The story was settled in fifteen years and it felt like five or six days. It had a spiritual element to it. I read books and books and books in history. One of them is the autobiography of Dr. Reid, her personal doctor.
There were, of course, the costumes. There was the research on the handwriting. Stephen Freers hadn’t [made] any formal rehearsals since I got the part. So I met Judy and then boom! The next time we’ve met—I was on set. So I definitely had to be prepared.
LRM: Through your research, what was the most fascinating thing you’ve discovered about Abdul?
Ali Fazal: Oh! A couple of things. The fact was that he was very young. What was it? I think he was twenty-five. He read the Koran. He knew it by heart. He took the good stuff. He saw all this culture divide—the race, the caste system and the religion. He saw the Queen on who she really was.
At one instance, he saw this lonely bored woman. She was pretty much eating herself her way to death. From where he stood, she should’ve been the happiest person on this planet. She was the Queen of the world or rather three-fourths of the world. But, she wasn’t. He managed to see that. I thought it was a very unique quality that he had. Not many do. That’s why he befriended the most powerful woman on the planet.
LRM: Absolutely. Now you acted alongside with Dame Judi Dench. That’s like acting alongside royalty yourself. How did that feel?
Ali Fazal: Yup. Like a royal. [Laughs] I felt very much like Abdul Karim, I guess. It’s quite uncanny. It was my first time in London. This is the first time I’ve met royalty—Dame Judi Dench. From the word “go,” we met for lunch. I remembered in this lovely restaurant, she gave me the warmest hug. We started chatting about India, other things and then talked about the film.
She just has this wonderful sense of humor. You would think that she is this uptight woman. Then again, I never knew on how these royalty would behave. And yet there is this girl there. She’s almost like a sixteen-year-old girl just having fun. She has so much energy. It just made everything so easy.
LRM: Now what about for yourself? You have to play a Munshi, a servant and so on. Was it difficult to act in this style? Did you have to learn the certain mannerisms for Indian servants or English culture for the film?
Ali Fazal: It was all from scratch. Obviously, none of us existed back then. That was nearly 130 years ago. Information trickled down. It changed. Well, we could be wrong.
We still all have a sense of it. We all of photographs of it. We all have the records of it. We knew on how the court had functioned at the time. I did do some research on that. The mannerisms were different. The way they spoke was very different than it is today. I did have to acquire all of that.
LRM: Now you mentioned that this was the first time you were in England. How terrific it was to be in that country? And how great it was on the elaborate sets they came up for the film?
Ali Fazal: It was terrific. In fact, we barely had any sets. The longest we filmed was three weeks in the Osborne House, the Royal Palace and Queen Victoria’s house. She built this house with Prince Albert. We were the first film production to get into the palace and shoot there. We were there. It was the real deal.
The other locations were actual locations. None of them were sets. The filming was very real. I’ve never seen all of this before. I’ve never been to London or England before. And to open my schedule in Scotland was very magical. [Laughs]
LRM: I’m so jealous that you got to travel to all these places. I will have to admit that to you. [Laughs] Now tell me about the costumes. You wore so many different costumes for the film. It looked beautiful and yet uncomfortable to me. How was that?
Ali Fazal: [Laughs] Oh, God no. They were the most comfortable things. We put in hours and hours of measurements and fittings. Consolata Boyle was behind on all of this. She did do Florence Jenkins before all of this. She worked on this film and brought authenticity to everything.
The most unique thing about this film is that Lee Hall, the screenwriter, he doesn’t use timelines in the film. It’s actually the costumes that fit you in all the way for the time period of fifteen years. It was very delicate. It was very important to make sure that the costumes are right for that particular scene in that particular time. The films can jump to six months later or a year later. For these jumps, you don’t really see while watching the film—but with these costumes.
It was smooth. I thought it was really, really smart on Consolata and the powers would be.
LRM: Did you have a chance to keep a souvenir from the set? That would’ve been awesome. [Laughs]
Ali Fazal: No. But, our costumes are being displayed at the Osborne House. They are on mannequins for the tourists to see. [Laughs] I certainly hope I get them. They’re really comfortable to wear. I wish I could take them. Maybe. [Laughs]
LRM: Was there a huge difference for yourself to be an Indian actor making an English film? How much of a difference between Indian films and English films in terms of production for youself?
Ali Fazal: Of course! This was a big production. Indian films are not such a big production. They’re not on the same level. There’s Universal Studios, Focus Features, Working Title and BBC. There is Stephen Frears and Judi Dench. It doesn’t get any cooler.
I am from Bollywood. I have done Furious 7 in a cameo two years ago. I have been exposed to that world. Then again, Fast & Furious is a larger than life set and production.
It’s very different. Indian films, for technology, we are a good ten to fifteen years behind. We still have a lot to catch up on. We are doing well. There are some interesting content coming out of India.
Now this film being a true story, it changes things. It had to be different.
LRM: Do you prefer doing English films now? Or do you want to continue with your Indian career?
Ali Fazal: I think the world is becoming smaller. I’m so happy to be a part of an English film like this. I’m hoping to be a part of more such films or even in different languages. Who knows at the end of the day? I don’t have to be in India to run an Indian career. I can always go back to shoot a film since it’s a good market there. This is a place on where I want to explore. It’s a very exciting time for actors. I hope there are more directors out there who are willing to push it with me. Maybe they’ll take that risk. Who knows?
LRM: Let me wrap it up with one more question with you, Ali. Can you talk about any of your future projects—whether it’s Indian or English projects down the pipeline?
Ali Fazal: We are currently in talks with several things. However, there is one Indian project that we just wrapped up with. It’s called Fukrey Returns. It’s a sequel. We did part one a few years ago and it was a sleeper hit. We wrapped up the second part and I’m looking forward to that at the end of the year.
And I’m really hoping in locking some projects in Hollywood. Who knows?
LRM: Awesome, Ali. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and especially with your character. I thought you were wonderful in the film. Hopefully, I get to see you in more stuff in the future.
Ali Fazal: Thank you. You’re kind. Thank you very much.
Victoria and Abdul is currently playing in theaters.
Source: Exclusive to LRM