‘Victoria and Abdul’: How Ali Fazal Got a MakeoverHow does a 21st century, modern Indian transform himself into a 19th century British Raj clerk, a servant of Queen Victoria?
In ‘Victoria and Abdul’ the story of an unusual friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim, this was the challenge for Ali Fazal, boy from Lucknow, Bollywood actor from Mumbai who had done a cameo in ‘Fast and Furious’. He had to be totally believable as someone who could charm the socks off the Queen of an Empire on Which the Sun Never Set – and he delivers!Victoria learns Urdu and Hindustani from Abdul for 13 years, raises him from an ordinary servant to a ‘munshi’ or teacher and takes advice on everything from him, even setting up a Durbar in her palace. She learned all about spices and mangoes – and her vast Indian Empire – through him and he gave her back her spark of humanity. The queen quite adored him – but the Empire – her heir, the ministers and her inner circle – struck back at Abdul. On the Queen’s death, his existence was almost purged from the history books. All their letters were burned but enough facts are documented to ensure that this offbeat love story lives on, and is now on the big screen with the amazing Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, and Ali Fazal playing Abdul Karim.
In my interview with Ali Fazal, I just had to ask him how he transformed himself into Abdul Karim. Fazal says, “Well, I did a lot of reading – a lot of letters, journals, and history books. God, I wish I had read so much during school – but I did not! I spent almost a month and a half inside my hotel room reading.”
He also credits the costume and art departments of the film for helping him recreate the look: “Costumes play a huge part in the film – there are no timelines in the film – it is the costumes which really take you through this period of 15 years. It was a very good collaboration of all these departments coming together to help me flesh out Abdul Karim because there was very little information about him.”
Since Fazal plays Abdul Karim, the servant who the Queen elevates to her ‘munshi’ or teacher from whom she learns how to speak and write Urdu, the calligraphy becomes an important part of the makeover. The art department helped Fazal recreate this beautiful writing. He hails from Lucknow, that ultimate courtly place, but credits his grandparents who taught him Urdu at a very early age. “It’s come in very handy!”
It certainly helped that Fazal was tall and handsome and cheery to match Abdul Karim – the other servant Muhammad (Adeel Akhtar) who was short, dour and cynical never got very far with the Queen!
Of course, the main asset in playing Abdul Karim was Ali’s looks – they needed a handsome, charming person, someone Victoria would fawn over – so it was lucky he had the looks and the height! Fazal laughingly admits: “I’m definitely lucky! I felt very privileged just to be approached and considered, among so many other actors!”
In a way, Ali’s journey mimicked Abdul Karim’s for like the protagonist, this was the first time he was seeing London. . Everything was new and different. He’s traveled to many places but somehow had never made it to London earlier. He laughs, “Yes, our journeys were similar – and I got to meet Royalty too, so that is similar too! I met Judi Dench – one can’t ask for more than that!”
Indeed, Judi Dench is the Royalty of the arts world and so I asked him about his experience working with her. In the film the Queen and Abdul Karim have wonderful chemistry and the two stars replicate that beautifully, and it spilled over into real life too. Says Fazal, “She’s such a generous woman, such a fine actor and one of the most loved women in Britain, if not the world. She has a great sense of humor. She’s funny and if she walks into a room she can have the whole room in splits just because of how witty she is. And I loved that and that was key to our chemistry in the film.”
Fazal did get to spend a lot of time with Dench since they shot for over two weeks on the Isle of Wright in Osborne House which was Queen Victoria’s palace. Says Fazal, “We really bonded. I think ours was a lovely friendship that was brewing on the side and I love to call her a friend today.”One telling story which Fazal shares is that during shooting on the set one day they were about to call for action but Dench told everyone to wait – “Sure enough, three seconds later the sound guys finally called and said to wait – there was an airplane coming overhead! She sensed something – I call her a Superwoman.”
I asked Fazal a cheeky question: ” How was it kissing Queen Victoria’s feet?” and without missing a beat, he replied in the same spirit, “That was fun!”
So what was the most memorable thing about ‘Victoria and Abdul’ for Ali Fazal?
He says just two words but somehow they say it all – ‘Judi Dench’.
Postscript: If after watching this thoroughly engaging film, you’re looking for even more background on Abdul Karim, here is a documentary about this little-known figure: