The untold story about when Ali Fazal first met Judi Dench
Bollywood’s newest export to western cinema talks about working with the world’s finestUpdated: Jul 23, 2017 00:26 IST
Some time in the summer of 2016, Ali Fazal made headlines around the country, and the world, for bagging a role opposite Dame Judi Dench in director Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul. Ali, who was known for a small role in 3 Idiots and had just played a singer from Amritsar in Happy Bhag Jayegi (2016), headed to London to meet the legend. As a fan, he didn’t need to read up on Judi. He did spend some time figuring out his opening line. But all that preparation went out of the window and Ali turned into a boy from Lucknow who’d really met his queen.
“Maine toh unke haath pair pakad liye the (I held her hand and touched her feet), to believe the reality of it. Funnily, my first words to her were in Hindi. ‘Main bahut badha fan hoon aapka!’ I had the choice to correct myself, but I chose to complete what I was saying and then translate later. If I think back to it now, it’s probably because that’s how we’ve been brought up. Izzat ki baat Hindi ya Urdu mein hi hoti hai.”(We can express more respectfully in Hindi and Urdu.)
A few awkward seconds later, Ali the charmer was back, but a year later, he’s glad that those were his first words to her. “That moment contributed in forming the equation we now have. I first met her for lunch at an intimate get-together of sorts in July. There were the director, a few crew members and, of course, Judi. I’d gone there for a look test, costumes and photo shoot. It was my first time in London and I was feeling overwhelmed. This is why I credit her for helping me get over the stress of meeting Judi Dench the legend and actually meeting Judi the co-actor.”
From day one, Dame Dench was welcoming and accepting. The environment was casual and chilled out, a stark contrast to what Ali’s character, Mohammad Abdul Karim, experienced when he was first brought to London. Still, despite the magic of their first meeting, it took Ali a while to get comfortable around his ‘cool’ co-actor.
“She managed to shed her persona in that first meeting and engaged with me for the rest of the time,” he says. “I wouldn’t say we became friends immediately because that’s not possible, but she was just so cool that it was never difficult being around her. Cool is not the first adjective you have in mind when you think of someone like Judi. She’s a mega star, an academy award-winning actor and she’s a knighted woman. So I went in expecting some sort of a protocol to interact with her. I actually asked her this, ‘I’m sorry but is there some sort of a protocol here? Am I supposed to kneel down or something…’ Thankfully, she laughed all of this off.”
They bridged the co-actors-to-friends gap gradually, thanks to their many animated discussions about India. “She would tell me how much she loved being in our country and how she felt completely at home here. We would discuss the time she was here, shooting for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), the industry people we both knew and more.
There were many firsts for Ali with this movie, including a no-rehearsal shooting schedule. “We had reading sessions with the entire team but we didn’t have traditional rehearsal sessions. It was interesting because I had to feel like I was in a new and strange space. But I started trusting my relationship with Judi as we went ahead with the shooting. That is the crux of the movie and it ultimately shows on screen too.”
Lessons from the legend
The trailer of the film shows the duo indulging in both serious conversations and fun moments, a clear reflection of the comfort they shared on the sets. “She was always approachable on the sets. Just so fun and chilled out, almost like a kid! And while the shooting was fun, it was still a game changer in so many ways,” says Ali. “It was almost like an alarm clock for me, a reminder to pull up my socks, because there was Judi, with all her years in the industry, experience and knowledge, still reading up for this role. It made me realise that I need to do so much more.”
“I almost felt a little uneducated [while working on this movie]. All that I had read and prepared was not enough!”
In conversations that ranged from Shakespeare to the evolving nature of Indian cinema, Ali felt his life changing. “I almost felt a little uneducated. All that I had read and prepared was not enough. And I’d read a lot – more than 10 books that covered every major invention, political event and revolution of that time period,” he says. “She taught me that an actor can never really stop learning. There’s always a before and after in every person’s life. This film has definitely been that for me because I can clearly see a line in the middle, dividing my life.”
The learning didn’t stop after the shooting did, and Ali hopes the interactions continue even after the film’s release. “I struck a chord with her over time and that means a lot to me because of the process that went behind building this friendship,” he says. “We have stayed in touch and we met again recently for some additional shoots. I will be flying back there soon.”
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From HT Brunch, July 23, 2017
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