Royalty as humans: Chat with Ali Fazal, Judi Dench & Eddie Izzard
Ali Fazal joins Dame Judi Dench in Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul, an astounding story about the unlikely affection between Queen Victoria and her Indian aide, which surprisingly finds relevance
Academy Award winner Dame Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) reunites with Academy Award-nominated director Stephen Frears (The Queen), and returns to the role of Queen Victoria, in Victoria & Abdul. Based on the journalist Shrabani Basu’s book,Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, which brought to light the long-hidden history of Victoria and Abdul from their own diaries and journals, the film tells the true story of the amazing and unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Dench) and a young clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who becomes her teacher, spiritual advisor and devoted friend.
Victoria & Abdul explores questions of race, religion, power, and the farce of the Empire through the prism of a highly unusual and deeply moving friendship. “She was the Queen of England and he was a humble clerk from India,” recounts Shrabani. “Their friendship would shock the palace and lead to a near-revolt against the Queen,” she says. The story of this friendship, which was statedly deliberately hidden for a century, is now being told for moviegoers. We got the film’s star cast to chat about their roles. Excerpts from the interviews —
Set the scene for us, and tell us about the friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim…
Judi Dench: She had lost her husband, Albert, and had formed a great friendship with John Brown. And then John Brown died and I think she must have missed someone she could relax with, someone she could speak to freely without people standing to attention all of the time and all that formality of the Court. Perhaps I wouldn’t have taken her on if I hadn’t known about this further relationship she had with Abdul. But it’s a fascinating insight into the type of person she was.
How would you describe her relationship with Abdul?
JD: I suppose it was admiration and I think there was a spiritual side to it as well, in that she was anxious to learn about the Koran, to learn Urdu and how to write it. At the same time, she liked his gentleness. Also, if you look at Ali, you wouldn’t mind having him around (laughs). That must have been very much a part of what it was.
You’ve played the Queen twice in film. What do you make of this remarkable woman? Her name defines a very conservative era and you have changed public perception of her and she now seems more open-minded…
JD:I think that must be so. And also it shows a very human side to her, as she didn’t have great relationships with her children, but here was a young man that she found she could communicate with, and it shows a very human, compassionate side of her.
And how do you feel about Ali Fazal?
JD:Understudy, I think, to Johnny Depp — younger (laughs). What a beauty. He’s the most beautiful boy — very gentle and very intelligent. He has a great sense of humour. We had some wonderful laughs, and he’s so tall too. It’s wonderful! Who wouldn’t go for him? He kissed her feet — good grief!
Ali, give us your take on the story?
Ali Fazal: It’s a unique story, about an unexpected friendship in one of the last phases of Queen Victoria’s life, and unfortunately, history decided to shove it aside. It’s a story about a young Indian clerk who came in to present a mohur (coin) to the Queen and then something wonderful happens — they take notice of each other. I think what was wonderful was that they saw the human side of each other despite all those layers — culture, geography, religion and country. That’s what made it an unlikely friendship.
How would you characterise their friendship? Is it like a mother and son relationship?
AF: That’s what throws you off — I guess we’ll never know. There are so many letters — my first time in the Twickenham Studios, I remember Alan [MacDonald, production designer] had arranged everything, done all the research. There were all these letters which she had signed off: “From a loving mother to a son”, or “Queen misses her munshi (teacher). Come back my friend,” or “Come back, hold me tight.” It sort of throws you off, but then it makes you think, “Why am I trying to club it all into one genre?” We’re so used to that. I think that’s what it was — something very spiritual.
What does “munshi” mean?
AF: She called him her teacher, her munshi, and so did he — he dubbed her a mother figure, someone who adored him so much and someone he could share things with. They intellectually stimulated each other — they could just talk, and he was honest with her. I think that’s what really clicked, because nobody around her could do that. That was the most important thing, that both of them were just honest. There was no judgment and no protocol. I think that’s what she really liked.
Judi, how surprised were you when you read the story of Victoria & Abdul?
JD:Very surprised indeed, and kind of pleased for her. You know, you get to 83 (years of age) and you have that rigorous timetable in front of you — you hear Henry Ponsonby telling her at the beginning, “And you’ll have tea at four and have something at four-thirty and at four forty-five…” How do you break out of that? [It’s amazing] That such a thing happened with somebody that she found that she could talk to on a kind of even basis, to find out about. She wasn’t like that with any of the children, so it must have been a very complex relationship of feeling great love for Abdul and feeling also as a mother towards him.
It seems that before they meet, she is lonely and tired, and he kind of brings her back to life. Did their friendship extend her life, do you think?
JD:I’m sure it did! I’m certain that it extended her life — why ever not? You know, as we know that when you are excited, interested, or have an appetite, it is reconstituting. It gives you your energy, but if you just sit back and think, “Oh well that’s it then”, what is your driving force?
Were you intimidated by the prospect of playing opposite Dame Judi Dench?
Ali Fazal: Well, at the time, I didn’t know it was going to be Dame Judi Dench, but of course, I had a fan moment the first time I met her. I sort of got it all out, but not on set. As an actor, and from a very selfish point of view, it really works for me when my co-actor is someone like Judi Dench. It makes my job much easier.
What was it like to work with her?
AF: I couldn’t have asked for more, as she makes you look good (laughs). She’s royalty amongst actors.
In personal terms, I was a nobody who walked into London for the first time, on this movie, and it was almost like a parallel with the story. It was amazing that both of us shared a sense of humour as this friendship happened.She’s so hard not to love. She’s probably the most loved thing in the world, if not just Britain. She’s a very generous actor – that’s what really helped. With Stephen [Frears, director], there were no formal rehearsals – the grilling process during the auditions was enough for him to just tell me to come on set and do my job. But because Judi belongs to a theatre background, she’s all about rehearsal. That was nectar to me. It’s a dream for an actor to be able to do that. I could look for her wherever she was and just say, “Judi, let’s rehearse. Let’s read our lines,” and she’d be like, “Yes! Thank you. Let’s do that.” So we pretty much knew the script by the end of it. I think I knew all of her lines (laughs).
Did you hang out a lot?
AF: Oh yeah! I mean, all the time. It was on the Isle of Wight — we spent three weeks there. We were in a wonderful place, and spent a considerable time there. I’d just hop into a van and say, “Let’s rehearse! You need Urdu lessons! Let’s do some Urdu (laughs).”
How did you feel wearing some of those very colourful and elaborate clothes?
AF: I felt a little obnoxious on day one — it was like all these turbans, and it took hours of measurements. Of course, Consolata Boyle [costume designer] is a genius. I call her my costume maestro on this film. She did a wonderful job with Meryl Streep with Florence Foster Jenkins and so with this one, I thought, “I’m probably in good hands”.
Do you often talk about how some of the themes are very contemporary such as of racism, and anti-Muslim sentiments?
AF: Well, yes, now that I look back. I mean, it is prevalent. There was racism, and there is now. We’re
going through a very weird period. It’s horrible. It’s so sad that time hasn’t changed anything — just the costumes have changed. I think today, more than costumes, it’s the ID cards that are scratchier to some people and they don’t like it — the faces, the colour, whatever it is. A lot of people ask me if [Abdul]
was manipulative, or if he took advantage of this opportunity, and I say, “This is nothing negative”. It’s okay — that’s what immigrants are doing. You enter a country and you seize the opportunity, you rise up. You have to, unfortunately today, fight for that one little visa stamp — that one little right you can have. I think that’s what’s most unique about the story, that [the characters] saw through that and just accepted each other as humans. In my head when I say it this sounds so cliché — just to use the words “love” and “hope” — but that’s what we basically speak about. This could be today, in 2017.
How did you get into acting?
AF: I broke my arm (laughs). I was a basketball player – I was at a boarding school near the Himalayas. I broke my arm and couldn’t play anymore, and my friend said, “Your English isn’t bad — there’s a Shakespeare play happening, why don’t you try out? It’s The Tempest. This wonderful girl is playing Miranda.” So I thought, “Okay, wow!” That was my first school romance, and it got me my part. I remember playing the jester, Trinculo.
What’s the biggest difference between this and a Bollywood film, besides that there’s no singing and dancing?
AF: That’s what’s changing in Bollywood — it’s not about singing and dancing. I think that is what people associate with Bollywood and we take great pride in it, but international cinema is coming in and making good money. It’s not just superhero films and Marvels that make money in India now. The audiences are changing, and our cinema is changing. Of course, technologically, we’re slower. We’re a good 15 years behind. But I’m excited to be working on this side.
Royalty as human beings
English comedian Eddie Izzard plays Bertie, Prince of Wales in Victoria & Abdul. In between his on-going series of stand-up acts, Izzard took a few moments to reflect on the British royalty, and why people remain ever-fascinated by them.
Where does your character fit into the story?
Eddie Izzard: I play Victoria’s eldest son, Bertie, or Edward VII.
We haven’t necessarily seen this side to Queen Victoria before, have we?
EI: There was a film called Mrs Brown, where a grounds-man up in Balmoral (the royal estate in Scotland) called John Brown had a relationship with the Queen. These things are documented. It was known, but supressed for many years. The story of Abdul was known too, but supressed for over a hundred years. So these are true stories of a woman who was desperately lonely and depressed, and
eating herself to death. Apparently she was as wide as she was tall. But I don’t think that’s quite right, because that means you’re a circular ball — but almost. Her husband died in 1861, and she died in 1901. That’s 40 years of wearing mourning clothes. She realised she didn’t have to do anything if she wore the black clothes. She opened only three Houses of Parliament in all that time. She could just spend money, eat food, and be miserable. But she had these two relationships that were real.
Why are people so intrigued by British royalty?
EI: Well, I like the bicycle royalty, like the Scandinavians and the Dutch, much more. I think that’s what (Princes) William and Harry and Charlie (Charles), to an extent, are all trying to bring. They’re trying to make it more human. We are fascinated by people who have a lot of focus on them, and what actually happens in their lives. I suppose the British monarchy is one of those. The Saudi monarchy have a lot of money as well, but it’s all the history swirling around it. Victoria being grandmother to all these kids, and then they’re all going to tear each other apart in the First World War. Fascination has different aspects. There’s horror fascination and positive fascination. There are different ways that we get fascinated with things in life, but human beings are interesting.
The Empire’s dark past
English film director Stephen Frears, often named among the most influential people in British culture, is known for a bunch of landmark films since the 1980s, including My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, The Queen, Philomena, and Florence Foster Jenkins. With two Academy Award nominations for Best Director for The Grifters and The Queen behind him, Frears returned with Victoria & Abdul, which premiered at the 74th Venice Film Festival in August, earlier this year. We had a quick chat with the director about telling a story about the Queen again —
If Judi had said no to this part, what would you have done?
Stephen Frears: I wouldn’t have made it. I didn’t tell her that, but
I wouldn’t have made it. Who else could have played it? Helen Mirren’s not like Queen Victoria. She’s wonderful, but she’s not like that. You take one look at Judi… I mean, I don’t get marks for originality (laughs). But no, I couldn’t imagine who else could have played her.
The Victorian era is defined by conservatism, but as your film shows, she was actually very open-minded…
SF: Yes, there’s a much more eccentric, and much more interesting woman behind it. It’s very entertaining, because she is the most liberal of them all, and the most progressive of them all.
Was the backdrop of racism a crucial part, in your eyes?
SF: Well, it’s there, isn’t it? It’s just there all the time. I made My Beautiful Laundrette (in 1985). I’ve done all this stuff. A Muslim writer is one of my best friends, so I did know all this stuff.
When do you think you first became aware of the British Empire’s dark past?
SF: I became friends with a Muslim, because I became friends with Hanif (Kureishi), so I really learnt about it through that. When I was a child, the map in the classroom was a quarter pink. We owned a quarter of the world. We ruled a quarter of the world. I was brought up in that world, and slowly I came to see that it was more complicated than that. The whole time, you’re discovering more and more about what was actually going on.
Did the story of Victoria & Abdul upset you in any way?
SF: It made me laugh, rather than upset me. The behaviour of the Court was ridiculous, and the Queen was always smarter than they were!