Ali Fazal: Covered in stardust

Working alongside some of world cinema's biggest names, the actor shines bright. Put it down to his talent, work ethic or incredible mind, but it is clear that the Mirzapur star's trailblazing run continues

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There's an element of providence to Ali Fazal’s story that makes for fascinating reading. A shoulder injury in his teenage years ruled out playing basketball and forced Ali in the direction of drama. From ‘debuting’ in The Tempest at Doon School, to exchanging notes on Shakespeare with Sir Kenneth Branagh, the Mirzapur star’s journey as an actor has come full circle. 

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As it happens, the Bard has his exits and his entrances in Ali’s terrific tale. While working on Victoria & Abdul, Dame Judi Dench told her Lucknow-born co-star, “Always know your Shakespeare.” It was a frequent refrain, Ali recalls. “At the time, I thought it was a very English thing to say, but (as the years pass) I realise how layered Shakespeare is. Now I am working with Vishal Bhardwaj, who is a pioneer in Shakespearean dramas, and I realise how beautifully it fits narratives across the globe.”

Like Shakespeare, Ali too seems to find relevance on a global stage. From a bit part in Fast & Furious 7, the actor graduated to headlining Victoria & Abdul in 2017. Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile is getting rave reviews as we speak. Ali had hardly finished hobnobbing with an enviable ensemble cast featuring Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, Oscar-nominated Annette Bening and Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, when work on Gerard Butler-starrer Kandahar began.

Covered in stardust, Ali shrouds these successes with a matter-of-fact quality that isn’t quite humility, but comes close. When he recounts stories of dinner-table discussions with Kenneth Branagh the night before his film Belfast was nominated for several Academy Awards, there’s a kid-in-a-candy-store charm to the actor that is impossible to resist. “We were at The British Museum for a Death on the Nile (promotional) dinner. Kenneth, Richa (Chadha) and I were discussing scriptwriting and he was talking about 

how he wrote Belfast in three months. Literally the next morning, Belfast gets nominated for like seven Oscars. That’s something, isn’t it? A ‘wow’ moment. It’s just nice to be sharing notes with people like that,” Ali laughs.

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One might think of it as being in the right place at the right time, but as his body of work evolves, it is clear that Ali’s achievements aren’t accidental. He works hard at his craft, reads voraciously and commits himself completely to the job at hand. He may have missed out on formal training as an actor, but he is constantly studying. “Sometimes I regret the fact that I haven’t been to acting school, because I feel like the grammar of cinema is so important. But I have learnt a lot of it on the job. I did a film called Milan Talkies with Tigmanshu Dhulia and I thought that was a bit of a turning point for me as an actor. The film didn’t work, but I learnt a lot from Tigmanshu. He is a genius. It almost gave me wings to be able to hold my own and not get intimidated by text, or by something that is thrown at you suddenly, in the middle of a take or a shot — it taught me how to carry on. I have been doing small classes and also sitting with a very good friend of mine — Amitosh Nagpal — just to figure out the beats and write our stories in screenplay form. He’s a very good writer and he has been tutoring us, in a way. I have also been to Adishakti and I think that has been one of my major schoolings in acting. It is not an acting school, but those workshops have really given me perspective. They talk about rhythm and everything is rhythm and I mean everything — to the point of being so mathematical that you can actually create instinct. Imagine being able to create instinct! Of course, taking direction from Kenneth Branagh was a learning experience too,” Ali trails off.

Collaboration is another recurring theme in Ali’s story and plays a foundational role when it comes to his worldview. Just as he learns from every experience, he is committed to paying it forward. He recalls a film he lost because he asked for a script (“They must have thought that was too demanding!”), but is quick to add: “It hurt at the time, but I think I’ve had it pretty easy. I am sure there are people who have far worse stories (than me).” A recognition of these struggles — and a need to tell meaningful untold stories — led Ali to set up a production company (Pushing Buttons Studio) with fiancée Richa Chadha last year. Making art and raising questions is a shared passion for the couple. “Artists should be thinking about what they are going to leave behind. Fifty years from now, people will look back at where our country is today… You know, books can be altered, words can be changed, re-printed, but cinema, once it is created, it is there. It is there for a lifetime, for eternity, and I think that is something beautiful. I feel like it is our responsibility to look 50 years into the future and ask ourselves what we are putting out there. I mean, I can go on, make shitloads of money, and just go with the flow, or I can stop, take a risk here and there, and say, you know what, I want to tell a story that might last.”

On the subject of legacy, Ali elucidates: “It’s not my personal legacy that concerns me. It’s about our place in history. Given where we are now, I think that it is really important. I don’t think I can sit back and say that I am apolitical and I don’t care, because I am doing my job. I feel like that’s the easy way out. I have to do more. I can, at least, raise questions. I don’t have to answer them for everybody. I can create a platform for people to start asking their own questions and thinking independently. We can be holed up in our algorithms. That’s easy. It gets easier every day. Everybody is going to be happy in their little bubbles and compartments and it can go on like that (if we don’t start asking the questions that need to be asked).”

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Incubating ideas that ignite change is a collaborative process and Ali believes growth is only possible if we support each other. “I think we will not grow, if we do not start to champion our own. We just don’t do that! If you notice all the industries that are growing… they make sure they champion the next one in line. That’s what I love about the Malayalam film industry. You’ll find a great film and then you’ll see that the next five films are made by the assistant directors who worked on that film. It’s not always the same guy taking it forward. Sure, you can, but… for instance, Pa. Ranjith: he supports great cinema, and not just his own. And that is such a fabulous thing, because we really have nothing to lose. We are constantly scared of the other guy getting more. But now, more than ever, the canvas is so much bigger. When there is work for everybody, why must we feel insecure?” Citing his own example, Ali talks about a script he was writing for himself recently. “Halfway through, I’m suddenly getting visuals of Jaideep Ahlawat. His structure, his face… it all just fit the role. Suddenly I’m like, hey, wasn’t this something I was writing for myself? I like the idea that I can detach myself from the narrative and then, if I fit it, I fit it, but if it fits someone else… it should be his.”

With Mirzapur in his oeuvre and Kandahar coming soon, Ali’s canvas is bigger and brighter than ever. And given the mind of this master craftsman, more fantastic colour will follow.

The marriage of minds

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We ask the obligatory question on Ali’s wedding to Richa Chadha, that has been on the cards for over two years now. He responds with a grimace and a smile: “Of course, the wedding is still happening! "I know it seems  like a big scam now, but we still want the wedding we had planned”  

The reading room

Carrying American screenwriter and film director Charlie Kaufman’s debut novel Antkind to our shoot, Ali proves his chops as a bookworm. “I rediscovered my addiction to reading while I was holed up in one room at the Langham Hotel for Victoria & Abdul. I was there for a month and 10 days and all I did was order, eat, read and repeat. I recently finished a very interesting book titled The Politics of the Family by R.D. Laing, but if I had to share my top reading recommendation, it would be In an Ideal World by Kunal Basu. Vishalji (Bhardwaj) recommended it to me, actually” 

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Binge-watching basics

Ali confesses to binge-watching Game of Thrones, but when we ask for recommendations, he suggests Killing Eve. “If people haven’t seen it, that’s a great show. The first two seasons. Every actor (especially female actors) should watch A Woman Under the Influence. It’s a 1974 film by John Cassavetes”

The cage of conformity

Ali recalls a time when he would sneak into the JW Marriott in Juhu to bathe, while his home was being renovated. “We’d pretend we were staying at the hotel,” he laughs, confessing that he doesn’t bother too much about the judgement of strangers. “Conformity did take up a part of my headspace before, but now it doesn’t. The fact that I’ve gotten the chance to be exposed on the other side of the world, with regards to my work, has made me realise how big the world is. There’s a thin line between caring and not caring and that’s scary, but caring too much can hold you back from discovering things”

Lessons learnt from legends

Gerard Butler: "We goofed  around on the sets of Kandahar and spent a lot of time together. I’d call him a seeker — that’s the word that comes to mind. What I learnt from him is not to let this (fame) go to your head: it can drive the best of them into really, really dark alleys” 

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Russel Brand: “He’s a very spiritual guy actually, which is quite contrary to his image. His podcasts are remarkable. He has introduced me to incredible books and some very interesting meditation. I learnt about the Wim Hof Method from him”

Dame Judi Dench: “I can call her my good friend, my buddy. She’s a sweetheart. She used to keep saying, ‘Always know your Shakespeare,’ and now I know what she meant”

Kenneth Brangh: “He was the captain of the ship on Death on the Nile. He’s done Shakespeare like nobody else and there was so much to learn from him. He was mindful of the minutest details on set — even my costumes. He was so particular about my tie pins, my collars… he would himself come running and just correct it between a shot. Those things matter, particularly in the larger scheme of things. I feel today’s generation — mine too — we’ve stopped taking care of ourselves. There was a time when men had tailored suits… we used to take the time to do that. Everything is readymade now. We don’t groom ourselves enough, because we think it is okay to be ‘caszh’ and I don’t think that’s cool”

Hair & make-up: Arbaj Ali

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