From working in Indian cinema’s highest-grossing film to sharing screen space with Judi Dench, Ali Fazal’s success story is iconic.
He began in Bollywood with films Always Kabhi Kabhi, Fukrey, Bobby Jasoos and Khamoshiyan.
Recently his Hindi movies Milan Talkies and Prasthanam did not live up to box-office expectations but above that, Fazal seems to have finally found his identity as an artist.
Since his brief appearance in Fast and Furious 7, the actor gained widespread appreciation and acknowledgement after playing ‘Abdul’ in Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul.
Now, he is set to make more waves in the international film circuit with Kenneth Branagh’s Death On The Nile, which features a stellar cast, boasting of names (other than Branagh himself) like:
Tom Bateman, Letitia Wright, Annette Bening, Armie Hammer and more.
In an exclusive interview, Ali Fazal talks about working on Kenneth Branagh’s Death On The Nile and Asian representation in the West.
You’re here in London shooting for Death On The Nile. Tell us a bit about your character and experience of doing the film?
I’m not allowed to speak about my character yet because it’s an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
I feel blessed as Kenneth Branagh is directing it accompanied by a wonderful team of cast members, which we’ve just announced.
As we speak, we’re in the middle of filming it and will be in London for another month.
I look forward to the film’s release in October 2020.
There is a lot more Indian representation in Hollywood, though there is a lack of substantial roles. Why do you feel this is the case and how can it change?
I think it’s just about people taking the risk and writing scripts for blind casting.
It is happening but is very slow right now. On my part, I’m trying to break that stereotype and it has been a challenge.
For instance, the part I’m playing (in Death On The Nile) isn’t Indian and I have a heavy British accent.
Of course, my role in Victoria & Abdul was pertaining to being Indian but overall, this representation is a battle we are fighting.
Indian cinema still seems to seek validation from the West. Why do you feel this is the case?
You’re right… See it works both ways. It helped us in the last two years due to the emergence of the web (Netflix and Amazon) in India.
We had to pull up our socks because there, you’re a pause button away from rejection because we have access to all the international shows now.
So that was a good thing.
However, seeking that validation is wrong. We have to trust ourselves because Indian cinema is not just Bollywood.
There is a lot more and they’re producing some iconic stuff. I’m a huge fan of regional cinema, be it Tamil or Telugu… Their music is genius.
It could compete across the world with many other films.
So how do you feel this can change?
Well, I think this is the way since it’s one world now.
We don’t have to keep thinking that the west is so far away, it’s all become on one platform.
Plus, we now have the resources to make it. The way to go about it is to start respecting our writers.
See the position of white dancers/extras in front, compared to the Indian dancers/extras is down to the West.
It’s like for example, Tom Cruise comes to India and he stars in a Dabangg, he will not be doing Salman’s role. He can’t.
These are just geographical issues. But having said that, there are lead parts being written for people of colour, which I think, has to seep into the Asian context.
It’s interesting you say that as Dev Patel’s role in The Personal History of David Copperfield is British and hs nothing to do with the skin colour…
See it’s a tricky one.
Sometimes you need a neutral approach due to movies being based at a certain time or geography, hence one may require a particular skin type or look.
Then there are also movies that can be made with anybody… That’s where the studios and leaders come in to take charge.
Your first web-series Mirzapur was received very well. How do you feel about the prominence of digital entertainment in India?
Oh yeah, thank you. It’s become huge!
It’s funny because Mirzapur was the first of its kind (which I worked on in India).
I remember directors telling me not to do web-series or OTT shows because it was ‘too advanced’.
But then Mirzapur happened and it behaved like a 200-300 crore film that’s just gone off the charts.
Today, I can’t walk out alone in the North because the series has become a rage, it’s nuts!
I have to keep telling my fans that season will just take time.
What do you think is in the future for Indian digital entertainment?
Oh, there’s a lot of shows and movies that have been sanctioned.
I just finished Shashanka Ghosh’s House Arrest, a Netflix original film. It was a quick job we finished shooting within 25 days.
With regards to the future of the webspace in India, it is very promising. We have a lot of talented writers.
In fact, we’re falling short of directors because there’s suddenly so much to direct!
Bollywood is a brutally cut-throat industry. What has been your constant mantra to survive… Did nepotism ever impact you?
I don’t think it ever impacted me. Maybe it’s because I put one foot in the west and I think it was democratic.
We don’t realise that people in Bollywood are getting used to that initial Friday outbreak and sudden hits.
That’s how it should be, one should smash it at the box-office.
However, I rose up one step at a time. I started with a cameo in 3 Idiots, then lead roles in ensembles and now full-fledged lead roles.
My mantra is to always take one step at a time… I mean why not? I think that’s the right way to go about it.
We certainly shouldn’t be shy about it.
Actors like Ali Fazal are much needed in the film industry.
It is truly endearing and empowering to see such artists represent India on a mainstream platform in a non-stereotypical and seamless manner.
Filme Shilmy also congratulates Ali for winning the ‘Excellence in Contribution to Global Cinema’ trophy at London’s British Herald Business Leadership Awards!