Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim who was a close confidant of England’s Queen Victoria in the last decade of her reign, is not a well-known figure in his native country.
“There was no mention. It’s unfortunate that there’s nothing in my history books when I was growing up,” said Ali Fazal, the Indian actor who plays Karim in “Victoria & Abdul,” which opens this Friday in Utah theaters.
As the movie, based on a book by author/journalist Shrabani Basu, tells it, Karim and another Indian were sent to England in 1887 to present a token to Queen Victoria. The two became the queen’s foot servants, and Karim ingratiated himself by entertaining Victoria with stories of India. He taught her to write and speak Urdu and accompanied her everywhere.
Fazal, a star in India who makes his debut as a star in an English-language movie, was fascinated with the divide between Karim’s India and Victoria’s England.
“It’s not a very glorious time for India,” Fazal said in a recent phone interview. “It was 200 years of oppression, and a lot of politics, and it left us devastated. We were a country that was broken apart. … At the same time, there were a lot of Indians at the time working for the British Empire.”
Victoria, though she carried the title Empress of India, had never visited the country the British had colonized. And while that could have driven a wedge between her and Abdul, Fazal said, “he saw past that.”
“He gets to know this woman, who happens to the the empress of India, who should probably be the happiest person on the planet, but she’s not. She’s bored, she’s lonely and she’s as human as anybody,” Fazal said. “And he saw that. These are two people who should have probably not liked each other, according to the circumstances. They did, because they just wanted to have a conversation.”
For Fazal, whose only previous brush with Hollywood was a cameo in the cars-and-spies movie “Furious 7,” the audition process was a weird one. “I literally sent in two scenes on my phone,” he said. Weeks later, he got a call that the movie’s director, Stephen Frears, was coming to India. Thus began a rigorous series of callbacks in London before he landed the role.
Then the butterflies really began. “I was more scared and sort of petrified about the film, I thought, at the end, when I got the part,” he said. “I was scared, because there was so much more work to be done. There was nothing on this man.”
Fazal read several history books, but he avoided Basu’s book on which the movie was based. Instead, he relied on the script by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”).
He also relied on Frears’ cagey direction. “He’s a man of very few words. Very important words, I must say, though you have to decipher him,” Fazal said. “He very beautifully manipulates you. He nudges you into arriving where he wants you to.”
Working with Judi Dench, who plays Victoria, was “wonderful,” Fazal said. “She’s generous, easy to work with, so friendly. I think what was so amazing was that we just shared a sense of humor. We can make each other laugh.”
(Dench had two advantages on the set Fazal didn’t: She played Victoria before, in the 1997 drama “Mrs. Brown,” and she had worked with Frears in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and “Philomena.”)
Fazal’s experience in “Victoria & Abdul” also showed him the difference between British and Hollywood filmmaking and India’s musical-heavy film industry, known as “Bollywood.”
“India is 15 to 20 years, technologically, behind Western cinema,” he said. “But also I think India is going through a major churning period. The cinema is changing, the audiences are changing. We’re not all song-and-dance anymore. We’re trying to come up with good content and good movies, because Hollywood is coming in, and a lot of audiences are watching English films. We need to pull up our socks.”