The idea that the figurehead of British Imperialism in the 19th century, Queen Victoria, had a long-term, quasi-romantic, intimate friendship with an Indian man still amazes actor Ali Fazal.
“I’ve seen those damn letters with my own eyes,” he says. “The way she would sign off: 'The Queen misses her friend, come back soon', then 'from a loving mother to a son', and then another one would read, 'the Queen misses her Munshi, come back, hold me tight.' Those were really intimate words for someone like that to say to anybody.”
Fazal is the 30 year old Bollywood star recruited to star opposite Dame Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul, an adaptation of the non-fiction book by by Shrabani Basu. Basu’s 2010 book shone a spotlight on events largely hushed up by history: the fact that Abdul Karim, an Indian prison clerk chosen in 1887 to travel to London to present Queen Victoria with a ceremonial coin on the occasion of her gold jubilee, ended up as her personal secretary, mentor and close friend.
Directed by veteran Stephen Frears, who directed Dench previously in Philomena and Mrs Henderson Presents, the film adaptation is an indirect sequel to John Madden’s Mrs Brown (1997), in which Dench played the younger Victoria during her controversial friendship with a Scottish servant (played by Billy Connolly). The ageing queen’s attachment to Karim caused even more of an uproar, and the film is unsparing about the disdain her Muslim aide weathered from the royal family, royal household and the British government.
Mumbai-based Fazal, who broke through in Bollywood hits 3 Idiots and Kukrey and had a cameo in Furious 7, spoke to Time Out on the phone from London.
Ali, did you know much about the Munshi before going for the part?
No. I had an idea of something that had brewed a long time ago between these two people, but that's it. Actually, it was kind of shocking to hear that this happened and we didn’t have a clue.
Were you shocked by the positive aspects of the story, or the negative aspects?
The positive. The negative is – well, you know, we had 150 years or more of British oppression and rule. But the fact is that [Queen Victoria] spent more than a decade with this man in this wonderfully intimate relationship – an unlikely relationship of teacher and student, of mother and son, of two friends. I’m not trying to glorify it because I’m playing the damn part [laughs], but you know, I think it was something spiritual between them.
"I think it was something spiritual between them"
There are a few parallels between what happened to Abdul and how you came to be in the film, aren’t there?
I thought it was pretty similar – you know, it was my first time in London, ever. I mean I’ve travelled the world, and yet somehow I’d just never been to London and it was my first time on this film, so that was weird.
What were your first impressions of Dame Judi?
Oh God, she’s so beautiful! I mean, it's the eyes. Of course, I had a fan moment. I literally kissed her feet the first time I met her. I mean, you’ve seen the movie, so you know why. But she broke the ice.
How did she break the ice?
We started sharing notes on India; she loves it there. She’d done a little homework on my Bollywood films, so it was really sweet. And of course we were talking about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and her time in India. I was scared – I was like, my god, she's royalty – and then there's this woman who's like this giggling 16-year-old kid who gets the whole room in stitches.
Was it a difficult for you to get this role?
Oh God, yes. It was two months of auditions – it was like a video game, just levels I had to cross. First I recorded two scenes on my phone and then I got a call back after 30 days and Stephen [Frears] was with Beeban [Kidron] in India sifting through a lot of Bollywood actors. Lots of readings happened, and I flew to London and it was it was an extensive process.
How did you become an actor in the first place?
I broke my arm! I was in a boarding school [in Lucknow, Northern India] and broke my arm in a game of basketball, and my friend said, well, you can’t do shit anymore, and my life was done as I knew it. And then he said, you know, your English isn’t bad: there’s this beautiful girl who’s here in this Shakespeare troupe that has come down to direct this play, why don’t you go and try out?
And so I had this wonderful three-month romance in The Tempest, and I played Trinculo, the Jester. I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times from lots of actors, but just that feeling on stage to be able to control 150 people... the twitches on their faces for that one hour.
After the play I came to Bombay for college, studying sciences and economics – I was a bit of a geek – and then plays started happening there, and I got picked up for my first film in my second year. Everything happened by chance, and I sometimes feel like I cheated my way through.
Were you always a film fan?
I was obsessed with Brando since I was a kid. I think the first fable I ever heard from my mother was about this Italian family in New York and it was in two parts. And when I grew up I told my mother, "why did you tell me the story of The Godfather? I should have learnt Aesop’s fables or something!" I grew up on those films: On the Waterfront, Streetcar, Godfather, Last Tango in Paris.
How do you feel about the institution of royalty?
Well, people love digging up on the royals. We love to get a peep into their lives. It's obviously unfortunate that this system has been going on forever, but I think today it doesn’t really clash with democratic society and it’s there as a symbolic head. And therefore, if it can do any good, then why not?
Victoria and Abdul opens Thursday September 14.