An un­likely friend­ship

The Coffs Coast Advocate - - LIFE - SCREEN LIFE with Seanna Cronin

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

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