Ali Fazal: The Bollywood Superstar Brings His Talents West in Victoria and Abdul
Ali Fazal might not have known it at the time, but he got lucky when he fractured his hand during his final year of boarding school in Northern India. Until that point, the Bollywood star had focused his energy on basketball and his scientific studies. But after Fazal took the small part of Trinculo in the school’s rendition of The Tempest to keep busy while he was off the court, he found that acting enthralled him more than slam dunks and periodic tables. Call it a lucky break.
“I loved that for that one and a half hours, I decided the emotions on the audience’s face,” the actor says, voice still full of the awe of the high school senior who just discovered his passion for the stage.
That same awe is present when Fazal talks about his latest project: the Stephen Frears-directed Victoria and Abdul. He stars as Abdul Karim, a Muslim clerk whom the queen has sent over as a “gift from India” to wait on her, opposite acting royalty (and literal nobility) Dame Judi Dench, fittingly portraying Queen Victoria of England.
But what starts out as, in essence, a servant-master relationship ends up becoming something quite different: an intellectual and unusually intimate friendship between people from vastly different worlds, who find common ground and mutual affection.
It’s a breakthrough—and a movie—that easily could’ve never happened. Not only because Fazal sent his initial audition tape after the call had officially ended, but, even more importantly, because the entirety of Victoria and Abdul’s relationship nearly remained a secret lost to time.
The royal family detested the relationship, and sought to hide it from the public eye and from history. It was only in 2003 that Indian journalist Shrabani Basu noticed portraits of an Indian man in regal dress visiting the queen’s holiday home. After some Sherlock Holmes-level detective work, Basu uncovered the friendship that the royal family almost successfully burned from history. Victoria and Abdul is based on Basu’s 2010 book of the same name.
Basu solved much of the mystery, but the lack of historical documentation about Abdul means he still remains an enigmatic figure. Embodying him on the screen required a lot of filling in of blanks-—a unique opportunity for Fazal as an actor to put a great deal of himself and his own understanding of Abdul into the part.
“It’s different than a regular biopic where you’re really playing it true to the person—what he is, who he is, how he walks and talks,” Fazal says. “This is a person that needed that flesh.”
It is not just Fazal’s first major role in a Western movie—it represents a step toward a more global view of film production, and an increasingly inclusive casting process. The production team made the trip all the way to India to fill the role. Fazal frames it as something that is not only good for him, but for Bollywood and for cinema in general.
“I’m happy that we’re widening these horizons and that filmmakers are taking those chances,” Fazal says, at the same time acknowledging that whether it be Hollywood or Bollywood or somewhere else, the end goal is the same. “We’re just trying to make good movies, but we’re getting bigger, that’s all. We’re just globalizing.”
Such a major, sought-after role entailed a drawn-out and intensive audition process. Fazal had to beat out “almost all of Bollywood” to play Karim, but the work and the wait was well worth it.
“I know it’s a lot to say,” says Fazal after trailing off mid-sentence, seemingly hesitant to make such a grand pronouncement before deciding that there is no other way to frame it, “but I feel that everybody has sort of a before and after in their life. And I think this is what it is for me, like, this is what it is.”
While Fazal plans to keep making a Bollywood movie every year or so to “keep his country happy,” he also expects to be widening his own horizons permanently in the near future with a move to Los Angeles.
“This weather is growing on me,” he says. I can see the sly grin on his face even though we’re talking over the phone. “I think I’m going to like it on this side of the world.”
Written by Kylie Obermeier
Photographed by Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
Styled by Jenny Ricker