VICTORIA & ABDUL Star Ali Fazal and Author Shrabani Basu Talk Working With Judi Dench, and More
Over the last few weeks, we had a chance to catch up with Ali Fazal, who plays the titular Indian servant Abdul Karim in the period dramedy Victoria & Abdul (expanding into wide release this weekend), as well as with novelist Shrabani Basu, whose nonfiction novel spawned the screenplay for the movie. Read on as they talk about working with the legendary Judi Dench, the historical discoveries they made about this enigmatic, larger-than-life historic figure, and more. And don’t forget to check out our review of the moving film, here, from the Toronto International Film Festival.
Interview of Ali Fazal – Star of Victoria & Abdul
The SplashReport: What was it like to participate in a project like this one and what has it been like since the movie was made?
Ali Fazal: Well, I got very lucky and this has been amazing. We started with the film in Venice, London, and Toronto [International Film Festival] and the reception has been wonderful. Plus, I got to share notes with Judi Dench, [director] Stephen Frears, who was like the captain of the ship, and Michael Gambon. They are all legends. And in such a depressing time, the movie was a breath of fresh air even though it shows some of the more depressing side of British culture, some of the bad things we have gone through there. I like that the movie did not glorify the British Empire for that reason.
TSR: Other than the obvious working with superstars, is there anything in particular that drew you to this project or spoke to you on a personal level?
AF: Nobody knew about this episode, about this Indian man, who knew the Queen, and about 15 years of the monarch’s life, the last chapter in her life. He was removed from history, deliberately removed by English and by Indian people who did not like the threat that he represented. So for me it was a journey of discovery of a fantastic story and one that needs to be told.
TSR: Isn’t it depressing that some of the same racism or Islamophobia still exists today? What if anything do you hope the film says to any of that?
AF: It would be wonderful if one day we could move past beyond those prejudices. Islamophobia is there as is a lot of racism. Now we just have different words for it then back then. We have tried to brush it under, but it is important to have a dialogue and be respectful. Where have war and politics gotten us? Nowhere, for over 100 years. Maybe it is time for conversations.
TSR: What sort of preparations did you do to prepare for this role?
AF: Well, I did give Judi Dench Urdu lessons and she was an “A” student. I also started reading the book but then I stopped because the way Lee Holland had written the screenplay, I did not want to try to second guess it. I did not want to take myself out of it. And I worked together with all of the departments—the art director, the costume designer, all helped me recreate this 1800s time and space. I had to put a lot of myself in the character. The character resonated with me on a personal level, he was an opportunist and also faced resistance and I experience the same in my industry but I am also an opportunist looking for ways to get ahead. I am young and ambitious like he is and I appreciate that about him.
TSR: What surprised you the most about your work on Victoria & Abdul?
AF: I found myself flirting with Judi Dench [laughs]. It was obviously playful but there was an honesty in our relationship, no matter what was happening, and that helped both of us translate it onto the screen. Abdul sees through the fakeness of the Court and that attracted the two people to each other in a wonderful friendship. I was also surprised that for days and days on the set Stephen [Frears] would not say much and finally I went up to Judi and asked her if anything was wrong and she explained from working with him that if he did not talk, it meant that he liked what was going on.
TSR: What projects are you working on now and for the future?
AF: Lots of things but I am mostly working on developing some original content in TV format with Amazon India, so stay tuned for that.
Interview of Shrabani Basu – Author of “Victoria & Abdul”
TSR: How did you come across this project and what made you decide to research it and devote time to it?
SB: I was doing research on a book of spices and recipes and I came across this story of an Indian servant who had played such an important role in the court of Queen Victoria. I traveled to England and then to India and asked to see Victoria’s papers and after a lot of research I realized this was a story that had not been told but that needed to be told.
TSR: What work or consultation did you do with turning your novel into a script for two hours?
SB: I was very involved whenever [screenwriter] Lee Holland or [director] Stephen Frears needed me. I was also content to stay on the sidelines and observe if needed. Overall it was a very rewarding experience, they are both so talented. I think the script is a very faithful adaptation of the novel and I wouldn’t change one thing of it.
TSR: Was there any part that you wish had gotten more or less screen time, or something that did not translate well?
SB: I think it was perfect as it was, because some of the stuff in the novel does not translate as well into a movie. The balance they struck was perfect in terms of explaining the characters’ motivations, including the motivations of the enigmatic friend and the court members. There is enough humor and levity in the movie just like in the book, but there are also some serious topics there, the most important being why such an effort was made to keep this story under wraps and to try to erase him from history.
TSR: How did it happen that the book turned into a potential movie?
SB: Well there were several bidders to be honest with you, I was very lucky and very fortunate. And ultimately I decided to go with [BBC & Working Title, with Focus distributing]. When I found out that Judi Dench was going to reprise her role as the Queen, I was ecstatic. I could not think of a better person and in some ways that character was born for her. She is a natural and very talented, as is everyone else in the cast and crew. So it was a no brainer for me particularly when I found out who would be involved in the process, including the very talented Stephen Frears.
TSR: What projects are you working on currently
SB: Nothing definitive yet but I am still focusing on non-fiction works and will have a couple of things out soon.