Showcasing the sweeping, epic and lavish costumes and sets that powerfully give some of the most visual credence to historical films isn’t always the most important part of the story. That’s certainly the case with the new comedy-drama, ‘Victoria and Abdul,’ which chronicles the unexpected friendship and loyalty that developed between the two title characters, who are played by Judi Dench and Ali Fazal. The movie, which was directed by Stephen Frears, highlights the fact that differences in generation, ethnic and religious backgrounds and social status don’t create a barrier on friendship, and anyone can be transformed by unexpected relationships.
The biopic, which is currently playing in select theaters, is set to expand into a wider theatrical release nationwide on Friday, courtesy of Focus Features. The new screen adaptation of ‘Victoria and Abdul’ is based on the 2010 book of same name by Shrabani Basu.
‘Victoria and Abdul,’ which is largely set in Windsor Castle in the late 19th-century England, chronicles the title Queen Victoria (Dench) as she struggles to find continued meaning in her life. But the British monarch, who also adopted the additional title of Empress of India in 1871, unexpectedly begins to appreciate life at the helm of the reign again. Her revelation is sparked by the formation of her unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk, Abdul Karim (Fazal), who presents her with a mohur (a gold coin minted by British India) during her Golden Jubilee.
Much to the surprise of her family, household staff and even Abdul, Queen Victoria soon takes a personal interest in him. As the Empress of India, she feels that it’s necessary that she to learn more about the Indian culture. So the Queen asks Abdul to teach her about his lifestyle, and become her spiritual advisor. The duo then quickly forms a close bond, sense of devotion and companionship with each other. The Queen and her companion, who she endearingly refers to as her Munshi, form a deeply moving friendship that humorously explores questions of race, religion, power and the farce of an Empire.
Fazal generously took the time recently to talk about playing the title character of Abdul Karim in ‘Victoria and Abdul’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actor discussed how he hadn’t known about the relationship between the Queen and her Munshi before he auditioned for the role of Abdul in the biographical film. But once Fazal began to research how Karim fit into the British monarch’s life, he felt it was an honor to bring their relationship to the screen. The performer also described Dench as being a generous and caring co-star, and he cherished the time they had to spend together while making the historical comedy-drama.
The conversation began with Fazal revealing that the audition process for the role of Karim lasted for about two months. The actor’s dedication to bringing his title character to the screen continued once he was cast, because “not many people know about Abdul. I didn’t know about him” before he heard about the biographical film, and the book that it’s based on. “Their story was conveniently taken out of history.
“But Abdul was a very important part of Queen Victoria’s life. I think it’s a great honor to be able to portray their relationship, and share it with the world,” Fazal also humbly shared.
After the performer signed on to portray Karim, he did some of his own research into the life of Queen Victoria’s Indian Muslim servant. He studied photographs of Karim, which showcase how he dressed. Fazal also read the journals that the British Monarch’s companion written, are still available for the public to view, in order to study Karim’s handwriting. “You can see a sense of progression in their relationship in their belongings. You can see what Abdul taught the Queen, and how they became close friends.”
Fazal then further explained how the creation of the look for his role of Queen Victoria’s attendant was a collaboration of several departments. “The biggest input came from the costume department. We would sit for hours sometimes, and talk about how those costumes would change over time, especially with different statuses” that Karim had while serving the Empress of India, the actor revealed. “The costumes changed, and became more Indian and ethnic, when he became a servant. Of course, as time went by, he started getting medals and being honored by the Queen in many ways.
“So showing that through the costumes was very important, because they help transport you all the way back, and give you a sense of being there,” Fazal also noted. “Getting the posture right also helps you get into the skin of the character,” which is another physical aspect that he thought was important for him to perfect as a performer.
While connecting to the physicality of his title character of Abdul was important for Fazal as an actor on this type of historical biopic, the performer also felt that speaking with Frears about the story’s development during the casting process was also immensely helpful. “The audition process was a long one, so that was the time in which Stephen and I built this trust with each other. So once I was cast, he just said, ‘I want you to bring what you have, and just do the job,'” Fazal divulged with a laugh. “But once we started filming, we never discussed anything.”
While Frears allowed Fazal to have some creative freedom in developing the character of Abdul once production began, the actor acknowledged that “Judi and I were constantly trying to find time to learn and rehearse our lines together. We also tried to become familiar with all of the teachings of Abdul Karim, so that was fun. That’s when we really started building the relationship that the Queen and Abdul shared.”
The two lead performers met a couple of weeks before they began filming, which was an experience that Fazal described as being “a nice ice breaker. We had lunch together, and shared a few laughs. She’s such a gentle soul, and also very welcoming and generous. That made it so much easier to act with her. I’m a fan of her work, so being able to share screen space with her” was an encounter that he’ll always cherish. The actor humbly added that “I love it when my co-stars are so good; it adds to my work, and makes me look good. It was a wonderful time, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
The process of shooting ‘Victoria and Abdul’ on in location in the United Kingdom and India “was a fun one. It was really nice that we went to India to film in Agra, where the story began and ended,” Fazal shared. “Then, of course, there were also these wonderfully exotic places in the U.K., such as Scotland and the Osborne House, which was the royal palace on the Isle of Wight. That was the home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which they built together. This was the first time that a movie has gotten permission to shoot at Osborne House.”
The performer described the experience of shooting within the royal palace as “fun and nice. But it was also weird sometimes to be within those corridors, and sit in the rooms where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert probably sat and had conversations.”
The compassion that arose between Queen Victoria and Abdul “was what attracted me most to this part. Abdul saw that there was that much turmoil and oppression. India was a colony of the British Empire at the time, but he saw past that. He saw hope in the Queen, who ruled three quarters of the planet, but was still lonely. He wanted to talk to her, and share things with her.”
Fazal also pointed out that the comedy-drama’s title characters “had a very spiritual relationship, and that’s why they liked each other. They saw each other as humans who were on the same level, and not as people from different places or classes.” The actor added that he hopes audiences can take away the meaning, and importance, of love from the film.