The A Plus Interview

Ali Fazal On What He Hopes Audiences Will Take Away From 'Victoria And Abdul'

"The words love and hope — as clichéd as they are, and as used and abused as they are today — are the answer to everything."

Even though history has already happened and is written down in a book for us all to study, it doesn't mean it's not constantly changing. One prime example of this occurred in 2010 when the journals of an Indian man named Abdul Karim were discovered, unearthing a close connection he had shared with Queen Victoria at the end of her reign. This friendship — one between the Queen of the British Empire and a commoner from a distant land — is one that few, if any, knew about but is now the subject of the film Victoria and Abdul.

Starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as Karim, the Stephen Frears-directed movie exposes audiences to this story — based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu. Given the fact that it's been well over 100 years since these events actually occurred, audiences will likely be able to see parallels to the current-day politics from around the globe as well as the fear, misunderstanding, and reluctance to those who are different from ourselves.

A Plus spoke to Fazal — who has appeared in Bollywood films such as 3 Idiots, Fukrey, and Happy Bhag Jayegi in addition to Furious 7 here in the U.S. — about this breakthrough role, the historical significance of the movie's universal lessons, what he wants audiences to take away from the film, and working with Dench.

Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features
Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features

A PLUS: In what ways were you able to connect to the role of Abdul? Was it easy to get into this character and what about playing this real-life person was the most meaningful for you?

Ali Fazal: It's daunting, to begin with. I remember when I got the call confirming me for the part, I was happy, but I wasn't that happy. I was a little scared because I knew what was about to come. In my research, I took a lot from the journals that Shrabani had collected over the years, but history has not been very kind to this man or this chapter in Queen Victoria's life. I mean, 15 years is a long time and … [it's been] shoved aside on both sides in India and Britain. And probably the rest of the world nobody knew. 

It was almost mathematical because I had to almost pinpoint in the scheme of the historic events at the time using crutches. Using the photographs, the costumes, the handwriting, the kind of inks they used, the kind of ledgers they kept, and the journals. The conversations he had with the queen in those letters, it was an interesting process.

What makes this character, this role specifically, stand out in your career?

To begin with, it is a true story. I've never played a [historical] character like that.

And then it was Stephen Frears. I mean it's a very prestigious project to be a part of with Judi Dench and the [other] names attached. You gauge the seriousness of the subject and the process, and then Frears takes you through this crazy, mad journey of making this film. He pushes you. I've never been through a process like that. He doesn't tell you what to do and, as an actor, he almost nudges you and very beautifully manipulates you into doing what he wants you to do but lets you make your choices. I thought that was just wonderful to be [a part of] because I had to keep thinking all the time, I had to be at my [best] game — that's the effect it had on me.

Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features
Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features

You mention that both sides, Britain and India, have seemed to brush this story aside. Why do you think that’s the case?

Oh, of course, because ... the royal family would never want one of the most powerful women on the planet, being Queen Victoria, to have any association with this man who they considered a lowly servant. At the time, even then, because he's Muslim and he's Indian — even though she's Empress of India. At the same time in India, I feel this is my interpretation, that we were closing in on independence. We had our struggles and we'd been through 200 odd years of British rule and oppression — not the very pretty picture. You suddenly come across this association with Queen Victoria herself — not the royal household, not just employed under the British Raj, but a direct relationship. You know that suddenly throws people off. There were people here fighting for independence who probably wouldn't want that — I'm talking politically. I guess that's what probably aided in keeping the story closed and not having the public hear about it.

Bertie [later King Edward VII], [Victoria's] son, even after Abdul Karim's death in 1909, he got two more raids on his house in Agra. He made sure there was nothing left. They somehow managed to keep the journal alive and found it in Karachi, in Pakistan. They didn't know what to make of the Urdu so they thought it was gibberish but it wasn't.

It amazes me that this story takes place in the late 1800s/early 1900s and we’re still grappling with some of the same issues today that were present then. Is that what makes this story so relevant even now?

We're in so many kinds of eras now, it's not just one. At least back then it was simpler, it was one Victorian era, and now we have [U.S. President] Trump, we have [Russian President] Putin, we have [Indian Prime Minister] Modi. It does resonate [even though] it's a hundred odd years down the line [because] not much has changed. We wear different clothes, but that's it. I think back then it was much simpler, it was straight up. "You're Indian? Get out! You're Muslim? Get out!" Now we've got politically correct words and reasons or some way around it to try and get the same thing done.

Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features
Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features

Well, there are some people who want to say “get out” to certain groups of people ...

Think about it: What if [Trump] had an association with someone from the other side of the world, someone he probably doesn't approve of — or at least that the management doesn't approve of. I mean, that would make the news.

Yeah, and hopefully it would educate him as well.

Yes it would. Educate him in Urdu. That would be funny.

Another thing that struck me was how Queen Victoria was so interested in learning more about Islam, the Quran, and the Urdu language. They were portrayed in a beautiful way and that’s something we don’t see portrayed in media all that often. Having been raised by Muslim parents, how important is it for you to show the world these things in a new light?

It was wonderful. It was so nice to see that this language — which is such a beautiful language — was finally being put out there in a positive light and showing what it really stands for. Urdu was the official language back then because the Mughal rulers were all over India and so even the courts would use Urdu. Even though today Hindi is the official language of India and that's the language we speak now, Urdu was always known to be this poetic thing. There's some great poetry in Hindi as well, but that was the point that it was all together, it was all mixed, and there was no problem with it. Now we have problems and issues because Urdu depicts something else and tells another story — and the popular media [says] that it belongs to not very nice people, apparently.

Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features
Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features

Abdul helps really helps change Queen Victoria’s mindset on many important issues in the world. Is there any instance you can remember when someone helped change your opinion of or transformed the way you look at something?

Maybe my grandfather because I shared a very interesting relationship with him. I grew up to Muslim parents [who believed] you go out there, you study, you do your thing, you get a job and make some money. And then there's my grandfather who is showing me the world, who introduced me to poetry … these celebrated poets. He really educated me on that. He would take me out and he was the first person to tell me to do [what I] wanted to do. Acting didn't fit in the place where I grew up, it was a hobby and that was the best it could be. This was one man who was far older than me telling me I can because if I like it then I should do it. Don't fall into the trap, don't follow the mob — you don't have to. Just because 50 people are saying something else or doing something else, that doesn't mean it's right.

If you could have audiences take away one big message from the movie, what would it be? Think of it like a tweet.

Well, there are going to be a lot of hashtags and I'm definitely going to tag a lot of world leaders on that tweet and hope that people see through the robotic nature of the mob mentality and what centuries of conditioning did to those people back then. They saw someone who's not from around there as someone lowly and funny and different — and the association is wrong. 

God, that's definitely more than a tweet. But I've said this before and I hope to keep repeating it: The words love and hope — as clichéd as they are, and as used and abused as they are today — are the answer to everything. We've tried war and we've tried politics for way too long. The human side of the story is what I hope people take from it. You can only hope. 

Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features
Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features

Judi Dench is undisputedly the most prolific British actress alive today. What was it like working with someone with her status and did she impart any advice to you while filming?

Judi Dench is someone I've looked up to all my life. There's not that many people on the list — there's Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, and Paul Newman. These actors I was obsessed with and now I get to work with one. I could never ask for more. I guess I got lucky.

She's so generous and so easy to work with. Even at this age, with so much experience behind her, she could sleep through this role and probably win awards — but she's constantly reinventing herself and that's what really attracted me to her and her work, and the way she wants to learn all the time.

Watch this exclusive scene from "Victoria and Abdul" — which is in theaters now — only on A Plus:

The A Plus Interview reimagines the celebrity interview by inviting artists to answer a short series of brief, poignant questions that strive to be more meaningful than those asked by others. Visit on the last Thursday of each month for the latest installment.

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