An unlikely friendship
THE lines of British royalty and screen royalty blurred for Ali Fazal on the set of Victoria and Abdul. The Indian actor stars opposite Judi Dench, who reprises her role as Queen Victoria in this sequel of sorts to 1997’s Mrs Brown.
The film tells the extraordinary true story of an unexpected friendship between Queen Victoria and a young clerk, who travels from India to present her with a ceremonial coin during her Golden Jubilee.
“I didn’t know (Judi) was doing it when I first auditioned for the film,” Ali tells Weekend.
“When I recorded my first two scenes, I thought it was better that way. I’ve always been a fan – we’ve all been fans – and the thought would have been intimidating itself. But on the contrary, when I met her it was so wonderful.”
Amidst the pomp and ceremony of the jubilee, the fresh-faced and chatty Abdul Karim is a breath of fresh air for the aging, lonely monarch.
“I got a sense of this wonderful little spiritual thing about these two,” he says.
“What attracted her to him was that he spoke out of turn yet he spoke the truth.
“Nobody around her would ever say it – they would just follow protocol.
“They intellectually stimulated each other; they spoke to each other about everything. I thought it was a wonderful thing to see this young man climb this ladder of success in the middle of this chaos.”
As much as he was likely an opportunist – who would deny the Queen? – Abdul was a deeply spiritual, Muslim man who placed a high value on service.
As he revels in his ever-increasing role in the Royal household, Abdul’s travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) just wants to get his official duties over with and go home.
“The movie very lightly touches upon that fact that Abdul was also a Hafiz, which is someone who is well read with the holy book (the Quran),” Ali says.
“He saw through the dirt, he saw through the oppression of the empire and wanted to see the good, and he found that in Queen Victoria – therefore he did not leave and this wonderful relationship started brewing between the two.
“That’s what set him apart from Mohammed, who mirrors the emotion of an entire country at the time.”
Abdul’s story was nearly lost to history and only recently came to light thanks to the discovery of his personal diaries.
“I went through all the letters and the studio was kind enough to have so much ready for me when I came to London,” Ali says.
“From the handwriting to the signatures to Urdu, it was just important to track this man down.”
Like his character, Ali was a mentor of sorts for Judi.
“My favourite part all through filming was having to teach Judi Dench Urdu,” he says.
“She learned it. She was a great student.”
Filming in the leafy landscapes of Britain was worlds away from the vibrant Bollywood sets on which Ali learnt the craft.
“I am so humbled and honoured to be a part of this film,” he says. “Being in Bollywood, I’ve been part of great movies there, but we all look up to cinema here.
“Stephen (Frears, the director) really pushed it with me and took me out of my comfort zone.
“If someone can do that, then I’ll jump to the ends of the Earth.”
Ali isn’t worried about what Indian cinema-goers will think of the film, which glosses over the major politics of the day.
“I like to think and hope it’s received well and my country lets it play,” he says. “It’s a sweet story.”
TOGETHER: Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in a scene from the movie Victoria and Abdul. PHOTOS: PETER MOUNTAIN/JORDAN STRAUSS