Ali Fazal Is Making Resolutions – And Sticking To Them
Life really does come a full circle, I think, when I walk on to the sets to see Ali Fazal, looking dapper as ever, all recautions in place, shooting for our April cover. My last cover interview, in person, was with Ali Fazal in early March last year for our 20th anniversary. Two weeks later, as the issue released, we were locking down, unaware of the year ahead. A year on, as we learnt to live in the not-so-welcome new normal, I’m excited to regroup with Fazal to learn all about his year, and everything that lies ahead.
Ali Fazal is nothing if not blatantly honest, and even though he’s tired after the shoot this time, I’m expecting nothing less than a crackling interview. Last year, when I asked him about his journey to Hollywood and his growth as an actor, he had said, “I’ve pretty much evolved like any other creature in this jungle called Bollywood, and Hollywood, in my case. But it’s been a democratic journey. I started doing lead parts in Hollywood before I got a lead part here. I’ve been a part of the batch that brought in the whole web series evolution with Bang Baja Baaraat. A lot of the decisions I’ve made have been based on gut instinct. There was a time when I got a barrage of really horrible films, and I was literally just doing everything that came my way. I had no direction whatsoever. I have learned on the job because I didn’t get to study acting, or the grammar of it.” His Guddu Bhaiya in Mirzapur is still one of the most powerful characters we’ve seen on OTT, and even on Fazal’s Instagram, his fans choose to call him Guddu Bhaiya, like no time has passed.
After a smooth sailing shoot, we sit down in the same vanity, and talk about how much has changed, and how unsuspecting we were the last time we spent close to an hour discussing movies, future of cinema, and the rise and fall of the silver screen. As the rest of us figure out the year ahead, Ali Fazal’s year is already laid out. Last year this time, Fazal was heading to LA to shoot for Death On The Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Fazal is a part of a sterling ensemble cast that includes Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Annette Benning, and Jennifer Saunders among others.
But now, in a week’s time, he will start shooting for Fukrey 3 for the next two to three months. He is also a part of one of Satyajit Ray’s short stories that has been turned into a film, that’s a part of an anthology (Ray, on Netflix), which is releasing this year. “I was going to go for the schedule of my beloved Death On The Nile the last time we spoke, and that was a crazy experience. I literally landed in time for the lockdown in the US. The release has been pushed to February 2022. Also, there are two really exciting projects coming that I still can’t announce, but I’ll be starting that in October — both Hollywood projects. I have two projects in India to wrap too (pauses). But I’m not rushing into it, I’ve definitely gotten more choosy than before. I’ve made a lot of mistakes earlier (chuckles). But despite how crazy the year has been, touchwood, I’m in a good place professionally,” he says.
We believe that, because Fazal has added another feather to his hat, as he has turned producer with partner Richa Chadha. Their first production, Girls Will Be Girls, is a mother- daughter story set in a small Himalayan hill town, and is written and directed by Shuchi Talati, who has co-directed a documentary about adults living with autism and Down’s syndrome with Chadha during their time in college. In fact, Fazal informs me, Girls Will Be Girls has been selected by the Jerusalem International Film Lab, and is the only Indian title at this year’s Berlinale Script Station, a lab that selects only 10 projects globally in one year.
“Richa and I were really excited about this. We’ve sat there, and we’ve met such like-minded people who are so talented, but something just goes amiss. I’ve seen such people every day, now even more so, since the canvas has opened up. Pushing Buttons, our production house, is a haven — we want people to come through us, work together, and move on. We don’t want to hold anyone back. So be it a writer, director, or any kind of artiste, if you’re free in your head, you’re an artiste, and you’re welcome to our little abode. We are very excited about Girls Will Be Girls, our first production, and it doesn’t star us. We’re being very careful about how we want to pitch this production. It has turned into an Indo-French production. Richa and I are inherently disruptors, we’re change makers, and I’m telling you, we’re a year or two away from big corporate houses coming to India. Some of them are already here. So just like me being one of the Indians who has tapped into Hollywood, everyone is going to be able to have that. The lines will be blurred. Imagine the Marvel universe opening up to having an Indian superhero,” he futuristically says.
One of the best parts about talking to Fazal about the future of films is his candour. Last year, when I asked him about where the silver screen is headed, he had said, “I don’t think the silver screen will die out. The two mediums will find a way to meet, and technology is going to find a way to keep that alive. We’re heading into some crazy times, and while the larger-than-life event films will pull the theatre audience, the responsibility of producing content-driven entertainment will be taken up by the web.” Fair enough, but this was also before we knew what 2020 was going to be like.
Recently, Martin Scorsese wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine, paying homage to Italian director Federico Fellini, but his words about the art of cinema being “systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content’” have caught the attention of many. Fazal is a big Scorsese fan (who isn’t?) so I ask him if he, too, thinks we have started treating cinema like a product? “Yes,” he answers. “I’ve said this before, I don’t understand the word OTT and its segregation. When there’s award season in the world over, it’s for cinema of all kinds. I think we love compartmentalising — where you’re from, what you wear, what’s your identity. I totally get what he is saying. We can’t escape it because everyone wants a piece of it, and suddenly there’s so much business in content,” he states.
With the web, we had discussed, the pressure of the Friday-to-Friday release is off. About the way mainstream will change its approach thanks to the onset of the web, Fazal had said the approach of mainstream was already changing, because you are suddenly competing with global work, with platforms showing international work. “There’s already a fear that digital will become the new soap. But if you’re true to it, everyone can be happy,” he had added.
But having said that, there is just so much out there to watch, that sometimes, some of it can feel so mindless. Does he feel we’re compromising the quality to feed the hunger of churning out new stories that we’ve created? He ponders, pauses, and says, “In the start, yes, it’s like when food stalls open, and everyone rushes to them. When the web space opened up, before there was even enough content, there were already more platforms. Then they started showcasing everything and anything, so the Censor Board also decided to join in (laughs). This, in turn, stifled those who were trying to push boundaries. Somewhere, the quality did get compromised, but it’s a business too. That being said, we have great quality content to compete on a global scale, and the budgets have gone up. But the sad part is that there will always be a replacement now. There’s a need to keep filling the void,” he feels.
A question that applies to almost everyone this year — how f’d up was your 2020? His marriage to Chadha got pushed because of the pandemic, but it’s back on the cards this year. The couple was supposed to tie the knot last year in April, but decided to wait. “We were just waiting for things to become slightly better,” he says. There’s been a lot of loss too, Fazal lost his mom, and his uncle. It’s been a tough year for the actor. As much as we like to blame social media for all the bad things that happen to us, there’s no denying that social media
brought people together during a dark year, be it through silly quarantine trends, house party apps, or lots of virtual weddings. “People were trying to latch on to anything that came from the outside, because we were all stuck inside. What’s really scary is that we, in a flash, have been prepared for military rule, without even noticing. We’re in auto pilot, and the minute someone draws the line, we shut up, and we follow. Is that the world we’re looking to live in?” he shrugs, and we take a breath, thinking about the shitshow we have been through. Can you believe we’ve been away from the theatres for a whole year? The future of storytelling, casting, all of it has been delayed. We called 2020 the year of change in our anniversary issue. Talking about ensemble casts, Fazal had said that in today’s time, attention to detail to an ensemble cast has become a reality, and we’re going to take that forward. “You can’t do the “one star” thing anymore. The lines between stardom and a solid cast are being blurred. A lot of that is owed to social media. Now we see stars on social media too, so the canvas has opened up a lot more.”
What does the future of the silver screen look like now, given how 2020 was, according to Fazal? Is it going to change the way we consume films in the theatre? “Unfortunately, the pandemic has already affected the business. A lot of films have released on OTT platforms, I think Death On The Nile might have to do the same, even though the release is in 2022, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. It all depends on the lockdowns, the vaccination process, etc. I think people will rush back to the theatres as soon as things get better because everyone is missing the movie-going experience, and the market will boom and bounce back. But what’s been damaged, which is the bottom half of our country, is far from repair,” he states.
Fazal’s Hollywood journey is only getting bigger, and while he can’t delve too much into it, he mentions an action-packed project he’s doing there, and another one he’s starting now. But okay, that’s all a part of the present. Fazal is someone who loves a plan, and he does have a five-year plan in mind, especially now that he’s turning producer. “I love animation. I don’t watch it much, but I believe that’s the future. I feel there’s so much to do there. I want to try my hand at producing more animation films, or shows. I also want to produce podcasts, and eventually, stuff with VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality). These are my five-year plans,” he smiles, as we wrap up our conversation. To ambitions, new processes, and cinema-rich years ahead for Fazal.