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Bollywood’s Ali Fazal talks ‘Victoria & Abdul’ role, transition to Hollywood and more

Ali Fazal

Ali Fazal Credit: Getty Images / Pascal Le Segretain

Ali Fazal is not a name you’d recognize unless you’re a fan of Bollywood films, but that may change with his latest role in “Victoria & Abdul.”

That film, starring Oscar winner Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, opened Sept. 22 and has earned Fazal critical buzz and a berth on Variety’s annual 10 Actors to Watch list, a group headed to our area to be honored next month at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

Directed by Stephen Frears, “V&A” depicts the fascinating true story of Abdul Karim (Fazal), an Indian clerk who winds up meeting — and striking up an unlikely friendship with — the longest-ruling queen of the British Empire. Their connection — straddling economic, age and racial divides — shocked members of the royal household, who destroyed most records of the relationship after her death. Ten years ago, an astute Indian journalist researching the Victoria’s love of curry, of all things, discovered a set of her journals in the Royal Archive written in Urdu — writings previous biographers had ignored, presumably because they didn’t speak the language. In them Victoria revealed unknown details about Abdul, her confidante and the man who taught her Urdu when she was in her 70s.

Born and raised in Northern India, Fazal, 30, is an accomplished stage and screen actor on the subcontinent. His first Bollywood film role was in the 2009 hit “3 Idiots.” He also co-starred in IFC’s “Bollywood Hero” miniseries. He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

What was your first meeting with Judi Dench like?

We met for lunch — and it was like an arranged marriage in India, where the bride and groom meet for the first time, and our parents are all there sitting around. It was hilarious, but really sweet. I walked in — and she didn’t know me, of course — and she gave me the warmest hug. It was so easy after that. It was like I knew her. We started sharing notes about her time in India, my Bollywood career — my God, she’d done her homework, which is very flattering. We didn’t have any formal rehearsals on set. We just looked after each other, and spent a lot of time together off set, bonding over food and such.

It’s sad how this man, Abdul, wasn’t just forgotten — he was lost to history in a calculated effort to erase him.

That shocked me. They made sure nothing was recorded. Anywhere. In Britain and India. This was 15 years of her life — a huge phase, and nothing. There’s a lot we don’t know, so there’s a big part of me in it.

You mean there’s a lot of Ali in Abdul?

There has to be. There’s a large part of Judi in Victoria, too. She embodied that so well. I just had to keep up.

Judi Dench was my first major celebrity interview. I was soooo nervous after discovering she’s won pretty much every acting award known to man.

She is royalty, my God, she is.

She couldn’t have been nicer. She offered me tea.

I cherish every single day I spent with her. The walks. And, yes, the tea — with scones — a very English thing to do, you know.

Why was Abdul so devoted to Victoria and not angered by the way her government was oppressing his homeland?

Well, at the time, that was our government. The East India Co. was destroying India. And this guy . . . he’s young, but he knew what was going on. Still, he saw through culture and race and the royal hierarchy. That’s what connected the two. She’s really the same. It was two people sitting and trying to have a conversation. She was royalty and nobody ever spoke to her like a human.

Where do you live now?

In Bombay. That is home, where all the movies are — Bollywood.

How does Bollywood compare to Hollywood?

The Indian cinema is going through a huge churning process in the last few years — it’s being revised. We’re not all song and dance anymore. We have to come up with good content. Because Hollywood films are coming in — and Netflix and Amazon — and making good money. So that’s nice, but technologically I think we’re a good 15 to 20 years behind. We still need more cinema halls — more theaters in the country. That’s how more indie films and more art films and more meaningful cinema will get audiences. So I’m happy to be part of that.

It must also be nice to be part of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch list.

I was surprised. Very humbled. It’s such a wonderful list of actors. I’m privileged. [He pauses, then laughs.] I don’t think I really deserve to be there. I’m just starting out here, so it’s a nice compliment.

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