From the dusty streets of Mirzapur — a fictitious town with the name of an actual Indian city — Kaleen Bhaiya and his band of brawny bad guys sparked the imagination of a nation. Millions of viewers across India and the world found themselves transfixed, as the terrifying Tripathis and brothers Pandit blazed their way into our homes via Amazon Prime Video in late 2018.
Headlined by the almost-infallible Pankaj Tripathi (playing Kaleen Bhaiya), Mirzapur also starred Vikrant Massey (as Bablu Pandit), Divyendu Sharma (as Munna Bhaiya), Rasika Dugal (as Beena Tripathi), Shriya Pilgaonkar (as Sweety Gupta) and Shweta Tripathi (as Golu Gupta). All-star performances did such justice to a dark and demanding script that, even two years later, the sequel to the show is generating enviable organic buzz — on social media and in the real world.
Guddu Pandit, played to aplomb by Ali Fazal, is one of the last men standing when Season One draws to a close. With brother Bablu and wife Sweety dead, Fazal’s character finds himself leading the charge into Season Two.
Having watched the show in all its gory glory, Guddu and gang are as familiar as friends. So, when the opportunity to explore the actor behind the alpha arises, we’re stoked to discover the man and his screen persona are equally layered and fascinating. For starters, both Ali and Guddu have a strange relationship with death — Ali is so uncomfortable with the concept of loss, he doesn’t even want to get attached to a new pet (though he adores dogs as well as cats); while Guddu is so incensed by loss, that only killing will calm him. Our conversation gives me the impression that Ali Fazal may be the antithesis of Guddu Pandit in almost every conceivable way — and that’s what makes his portrayal of the “Hulk-ish alpha male” so fascinating.
“The cliff-hanger that we left at the end of the first season demands exploration,” says Ali, as he shares a few secrets about the Season Two premiere of Mirzapur on October 23, 2020. “It is time for Guddu to shake off the jang (rust) that has corroded his brain for so long. He feels entirely responsible for so many deaths and he has to live with — and make sense of — this sad truth.”
So Guddu 2.0 is an evolution that ensures more brain than brawn will be on display as he takes on Munna and his men, with Golu (Shweta Tripathi) in tow. It’s a scripted gift for Ali, who is naturally intellectual. Off-screen, he meditates, reads voraciously, enjoys writing and loves to study people. Yet, he confesses, he doesn’t believe in over-intellectualising his characters. “Sometimes I think we tend to intellectualise above the page and we don’t respect the page as much. I really am a believer of basics first. I think we’ve just forgotten ‘half a breath on a comma and a full breath on a full stop’ — if you just do that, half your emotions come across. Of course, there have to be layers added. As actors, we explore stories and we have to leave 25 or 30 per cent for that magical instinct that happens right there in the moment. I think that’s the beauty of our art — it is unpredictable.”
It was, in fact, the unpredictability of his character that drew Ali to Mirzapur when he was first offered the part of Guddu Pandit. Back then, OTT platforms hadn’t established a firm foothold as promoters of local content, and most folks had reservations about the medium. “I got a lot of flak for choosing Mirzapur. A lot of people in the industry — people I genuinely respect — told me: ‘What are you doing? This stuff will come later; you should be doing films.’ I guess it was just their ignorance talking at the time. Something in my gut told me that Mirzapur was special. I trusted it. I felt I’d be able to bring something to the table (as Guddu). I loved the unpredictable aspect of it. I was familiar with what was happening in America (with regard to OTT platforms) where it was already tried and tested, and some amazing artistic work was being produced. I believed we would have a similar evolution here.”
Ali’s instinct was spot-on. Mirzapur was a trailblazing blockbuster; a milestone in his career that has given his already large fan following a real shot in the arm. “I got into acting literally by accident, when a shoulder injury in school meant I couldn’t play basketball anymore and I ended up, as a result, opting for drama,” says Ali, recalling his Doon School days. He admits he had a penchant for performing even as a child, when he’d indulge in little lies and charades to get noticed. It was always harmless and mostly designed to get his mother’s attention, but it wasn’t until later in life that he considered turning this talent into a career. “It’s like the Universe conspired to lead me here. The signs were there all along, but I just didn’t see them. I studied Science like a hard-core geek, and then Economics too. At one point I was interning with the United Nations and I thought I’d do my Masters and maybe get a contract with them. Throughout though, I had this push and pull with Art in some form — be it writing, telling stories in different ways or the fact that I like juggling with all kinds of languages and accents. I think human beings are such an interesting slate and canvas to explore. I feel I was aimless before I realised this.”
From performing in The Tempest at school to appearing in a Pizza Hut advert while in college, Ali’s career had an unremarkable start. But the path was clear and he committed to it. A cameo in 3 Idiots gave Ali added confidence to stay the course. “I called my father from a PCO (public call office) outside St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and said: ‘Hey, I don’t need your money.’ Seconds later, I’m regretting that call,” he laughs. The early years were hand-to-mouth and his finances dictated some of his film choices but, when Fukrey came along, Ali had a breakthrough. “It was a tremendous turning point at that stage in my life. It was still an ensemble, but I think it was a great thing that happened.” Bobby Jasoos, Happy Bhag Jayegi and a handful of other movies underlined his acting chops and soon Hollywood came calling. But despite leading roles in international films to his credit — playing Abdul to Dame Judi Dench’s Victoria comes with serious bragging rights — it is his turn as Guddu Pandit that has a nation breathless in anticipation this month.
Thank God for Mirzapur, we conclude. It’s been a tough year for Ali — what with the pandemic, the postponement of his wedding to Fukrey co-star Richa Chadha, and the tragic loss of his mother. “We’re expecting Death on the Nile (directed by Kenneth Branagh) to hit theatres at the end of the year, but with Mirzapur scheduled to drop on October 23, it might just be the one good thing to happen in 2020!”
THE LOCKDOWN LIFE
GOING SOLO: I spent the lockdown alone. Richa lives elsewhere and she had her pets to take care of. Hopefully we will be locked down together soon.
FOLLOWING A SCHEDULE: I did try to follow a schedule religiously for the first few months. I like waking up early when I can. It gives you that ‘you got there first’ feeling. You finish off all your chores and then the day is free. I’ve done plenty of pocha (mopping) during the lockdown. I would meditate, do yoga, cook and read.
LOCKDOWN SKILLS: I wanted to learn how to write screenplays, but three months wasn’t nearly enough. I did manage to get an idea of how to jot down stories. And I finally edited a short film of mine that has been lying in the cans for two years. Oh, and I baked brownies!
INSPIRATION FROM A (CO)STAR: Russell Brand has helped me cope and educated me throughout this lockdown. You have to hear his podcasts. The man is a certified genius.
UNVEILING ALI'S UNKNOWN SIDE
From dreaming in black-and-white to his passion for feeding people
What was your first paid gig: an ad film, a TV show or a movie? It was a commercial for Pizza Hut, directed by Rohan Sippy. It was shot in Bangkok and marked my first trip to Thailand. I made next to nothing — slim pickings, in terms of money — but it was a lot for me at the time. I was very happy.
Did you do any international travelling as a child? I did travel to the Middle East because my father used to work there; so we’d go for the holidays. We never lived with my father. My parents separated when I was in Class 12. Most of my travels have been because of work.
You are fluent in both English and Hindi. Do you speak any other languages? I am trying to pick up French and Malayalam. One of them is required for an upcoming film project.
Also read: Vikrant Massey: The man on the move
What language do you dream in? What a great question! I must confess I’ve never thought about it. The odd thing is that I dream in black-and-white. I don’t see colour. I was told two years ago that this is a ‘thing,’ and that I should Google it. You know how everything is a ‘thing’ these days (laughs). I’ve grown up in a very heavy Urdu space, where my Nana-Nani are these stalwarts — they couldn’t stand each other in their normal lives, but every time you throw in a Ghalib and then it’s an amazing jugalbandi. Perhaps my dreams are multi-lingual. Sometimes there are conversations with (in a mock whisper) ‘the other side’ in English.
At any point, before your acting career really took off, did you ever consider quitting? What would you have picked as an alternate career? I guess had the education for it, and I could have considered something else, but no — this was meant to be. It took a damn screw in my shoulder for me to realise that (laughs). I didn’t know it until recently, but my mother was into plays during her time at Aligarh Muslim University. She was a performer, an actor and a painter, and I think that whole bent of mind came from there. As for an alternate career, I absolutely love feeding people. I wouldn’t want to run a restaurant, but I would be happy just to cook for people.