In his nine-year career as an actor in the film industry, Ali Fazal has been roped in for web series (Bang Baaja Baraat), commercial blockbusters (3 Idiots), full-fledged entertainers (Fukrey), psychological thrillers (Khamoshiyan), dramas (Bobby Jasoos) and comedy flicks (Happy Bhaag Jaayegi) in Bollywood and has made his presence felt in Hollywood with a cameo in Fast and Furious 7.
The upcoming Stephen Frears' directorial, Victoria and Abdul, sees Fazal as Abdul alongside Dame Judi Dench who plays Queen Victoria. When asked about his experience with Dench, an elated Fazal says, "Unexpected. It's like a dream come true and surprising. You think she's royalty and everything else and then she's just this 16-year-old kid at heart. She's out there to have fun and make some movies. In fact, she's the funniest thing in a room when she walks in."
"She's one of the most professional people I've worked with. I've never ever rehearsed so much with a co-actor as much as I did with her. And when an actor is open to that, that's like a treat for me. I was in good hands," he gushes.
Considering he's made it to Hollywood, and not just in a cameo but in the shoes of a protagonist, pretty early in his career, one wonders what all went during the casting process. "Nothing went on, I paid good money for this," quips Fazal and soon begins explaining the actual process.
"It was a long process and took lots and lots of look tests. It was a big step for Universal studios and the filmmakers to come down to India and cast for this. There's always an easy route and we've seen that before. But yes, they then hit Bollywood actors and I kept going and having lots of readings."
"It was a period of about two months and then I went to the studios in London as well. I finally got the call! It was literally like some school exam, like levels in a video game. It was fun because I would have probably done the same if I were to choose my Abdul."
Fazal explains how Frears, the British filmmaker known for his films like High Fidelity, The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette, has a rather different style of working. "Stephen Frears is a bit of mad, Einstein types. Because he chose me and then never rehearsed with me. No formal rehearsals were called and he just said I want you to come on set and do what you do."
In fact, Frears also compared Fazal to legendary actor Shashi Kapoor, with whom he'd worked in the film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid back in 1967. "That was very sweet. I'm really touched. Also, there's a little history to it because for Stephen, Bollywood was Shashi Kapoor and at that time he was the first Indian to ever do a Hollywood lead role in films, which surprisingly nobody talks about now."
"But decades after, that he's coming to India and for him, Bollywood was like a full circle back to meeting me. I guess it's a good compliment," he adds.
As the likes of Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Irrfan Khan have already been absorbed in Hollywood and some others slowly paving their way to the West, it wouldn't be wrong to say that the filmmakers abroad know how to tap the potential of Indian actors.
Fazal, however, admits that it's only now that Hollywood is opening up. "I definitely feel they have an eye and they have a democratic eye for talent. We're making some great stuff here as well. I speak for a lot of Indian actors - the new actors and the actors who have been there and doing their job and who're far better than so many others, that yes, Hollywood is opening up and globalising."
"I'm not giving them credit because they were closed up for a long time themselves but I think now because they follow protocols, they know they can't mess with stuff. They can't just have a blonde play a Chinese woman! James Bond today can be a black person playing or a person of any other colour playing. They've become open to that world," he articulates.
When asked if it's a sign that both Bollywood and Hollywood are now moving away from the star-driven concept of the film industry, Fazal says, "I don't think they're driving away from it. I think these are legacies and they'll always remain. People will always be star-struck. It's the way you handle and how the media ups them. It's the tabloid stuff that comes out and decides. That'll be the real test of knowing whether stardom is gone or not, whether we're still star-struck or not."
"Any news on Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt will be viral today, any news on Shah Rukh Khan will be national news. But it's slowly driving out. It has just been, if not replaced, challenged by good acting and cinema and that you can't have a replacement for," says Fazal.
He adds that it "does not worry me that India might not be the biggest market for Victoria and Abdul but I know that nobody in India will be able to ignore it."
While Victoria and Abdul makes things look bright for Fazal in the West, back home the fans await the release of Fukrey Returns, a sequel to the 2013-film Fukrey. Fazal, who will reprise his role of Zafar alongside Pulkit Samrat, Varun Sharma, Manjot Singh and Richa Chadha in the film, sounds jovial when he talks about his co-actors.
"The thing with Fukrey, which doesn't happen with other films, is that we've just kept in touch. When we come together, we're all chilling. It's so much fun. The cool part is that there are very few films which people remember by the names of the characters and that's something that has stuck with the viwers - our character names," he says.