Remember Ali Fazal as Joy Lobo, the cute engineering student who killed himself in 3 Idiots? We all do, but his fans on social media comments with dialogues from Mirzapur on posts that have nothing to do with the show, making sure Guddu Bhaiya is always top-of-mind recall. It’s hard to believe it’s the same person. So, when I meet Fazal, that’s what we decide to discuss — his journey and growth as an actor, the evolution of the cinematic space, and now with the web dominating our screens, what the future really holds for the world of entertainment. After dabbling in a few projects in India, Fazal has started carving a niche for himself in Hollywood, and has reached a point where he can be choosy about the projects he decides to do there. As an actor, he feels like he has seen the change in himself, as well as the industry around him. “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,” he candidly says.
When he did Mirzapur, a lot of big directors told him that the web series trend would pick up much later and that he should focus on doing films instead. But something about the project clicked for him. “Till Fukrey, in fact, if I was a producer, I wouldn’t cast Ali Fazal in a Mirzapur. But there was something that made me feel like this is going to work,” he slowly says. His journey to Hollywood is something he feels lucky about. “My journey to that side has only taught me more about being myself, which unfortunately is missing here. I mean, there, I don’t have to change myself to be accepted if someone can’t see my potential,” he says. The storylines in Bollywood also have changed a lot since Fukrey happened, I tell him, pointing in the direction that mainstream Bollywood is now pushing boundaries with stories. “I think the younger generation of filmmakers is pushing boundaries because a creativity boom is happening right now. Directors like Anubhav Sinha with an Article 15 and now a Thappad is changing so much. I don’t mean to sound political, but when a country starts to go through turmoil, organically, things happen, and art is born out of it. The last time we had a golden era was the ‘50s and ‘60s, because that was right after the Independence, and straight after that, it’s happening now. A lot of people like me are bridging the gap with Hollywood. America’s here now, London is here,” he smiles.
“Stories are so important”, he continues, “and it’s so important for us to speak up, and bring out these stories. But this is a year of change, and we’re not going to sit down and take threats and not tell stories — at least I’m not going to,” he says, and we both know we need to redirect the conversation. Smirk. In today’s time, attention to detail to an ensemble cast has become a reality, and Fazal says 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,” he adds.
‘Masala’ is a popular genre for the silver screen that still attracts a certain crowd. Fazal believes that’s definitely going to stay. “We still take pride in the desiness of it, because no one can take that away from us. But the responsibility of telling a story on the silver screen has increased. The stakes are higher because, at some point, we’re at par with a lot of global platforms, and they also can’t ignore us,” he says. If we’re talking about the future, where does Fazal see himself, five years from now? “I fall in a very weird bracket where I have no set image. The producer says ‘yes, you’re perfect for the role, but how do I sell you?’
This was a problem till Mirzapur. I don’t have a set style, a signature. That’s changed after Mirzapur, and I hope I get to do more work like that. I am really hungry for good scripts here. The moment you define what genre you want to do, you’re killing fifty other opportunities. My motto is ‘try me and then reject me’. After five years, I guess, eventually, I will also want to move into other avenues of cinema. I write a lot, so I’m guessing that will come out eventually,” he blatantly says. And has he been picky about what he does? “I’ve been picky about my scripts internationally but in a more organised manner. I’ve handpicked both the projects I have coming up. The work there is also of a different standard, and people don’t shy away from doing supporting roles, so that also makes a difference,” Fazal explains.
Among all his future Hollywood projects, he is really kicked about Death on the Nile, that’s releasing this year, 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. “Hollywood’s heading into fun times, and a lot is opening up, in all aspects of cinema. In fact, I feel, if there’s something I have to focus on, it’s my work here in India,” he says. Speaking about India’s presence on global platforms, Fazal feels we’re only a few steps away. “We’re still getting there, and a part of the blame is on us because we’ve created this Bollywood bubble. I feel, beyond Bollywood, regional cinema, like Tamil and Malayalam industries, are far more evolved than us,” he points out.
Can we compare the work in Hollywood and here, I ask him. “It’s hard to compare purely on the basis of economy. Even their small budget films are big budgets, which changes the dynamics. I think we’re still fascinated by the 100-crore club. The work ethic is getting similar, but there are minimum wages and other things there that aren’t addressed here. An outsider without contacts can be kicked out when he speaks up, and the industry there doesn’t face that. But I believe that is going to change,” he says. Fazal has been a part of one of the biggest web series India has produced, and the web space, as we speak, is only getting bigger. Does he think the onset of OTT is somewhere going to change the way mainstream approaches their stories? “I think it’s 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 says. “I foresee, and want to see, more sci-fi coming out of India. It can be huge because we have so many stories beyond Ramayana and Mahabharata to tell. As a science geek that excites me. We have endless stories that can be told this way,” he adds, and takes me right back to a similar proposition Farhan Akhtar made in our February cover interview. Everyone wants sci-fi, guys
And what challenges is the web space posing for the silver screen, I wonder. “Well, the love for celluloid is depleting, I think, also in terms of making money. Only the big films will eventually make money. That’s what’s happening in America right now. Netflix and Amazon have taken over. Movies like Avengers might still work in theatres, but even a Tom Cruise isn’t able to pull in a theatre audience. It’s scary, but it’s also exciting because it opens up chances for more people to be a part of the content space,” he candidly says. So does that also mean that the web space provides more opportunities in terms of characters? Think about it, would a Guddu Bhaiya be possible in a mainstream film, I blurt. “With the web, you have the freedom to experiment and take risks. You don’t have a Friday to worry about. So those things really matter and allow you to work it out,” he adds.
What about the audience? Has he noticed a shift? What about their consumption of mainstream cinema does the audience need to reflect on? “I think hero worship. That’s just embedded in our culture. It’s in our minds, that our gods are our heroes, and our heroes are our gods. Suddenly we’ve become a volatile audience, and the fear of offence has become a thing. People have to think twice about the stories that they put out,” he states. But having said all of that, the web and the silver screen are going to be able to coexist in a way, Fazal feels. “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. The audience is also changing, but there’s still a lot of evolution waiting to happen. That change in audience will come from the leaders of cinema, people who have that opinion globally. As long as we’re spreading wings everywhere, we’re heading into an exciting time as an industry, and as an audience,” he finishes off. Well, we really hope so too.