He is acting in Bollywood and Hollywood movies, wrapping up Mirzapur 3, running his newly-launched production house, and finding time to vacation on stunning locales. According to Ali Fazal, his high-octane energy is powered by his ‘greed.’
I had first met Ali Fazal on another cover shoot like this, about five years back. I was amused by his almost childlike enthusiasm to try out different shots. It was halfway through the shoot that he revealed that he had a sprained limb and he was camouflaging a shooting pain behind his high jinks.
Even today, on a mellow winter morning, when I catch him on the shoot for this cover, he is as ebullient as ever. As he prances in front of the camera, he imbues the studio with his espresso-laced energy. He comes up with his own ideas while sticking to the brief, enthusiastically tries out all the ‘experiment shots’ the photographer could envisage and asks for retakes until he is sure that the team is absolutely happy with the outcome. And he wraps up everything in record time. That is the very essence of Ali Fazal.
The actor, who is just back from Afghanistan after wrapping up the shoot of the Gerard Butler-starrer Kandahar and is about to resume the shoot of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Khufiya, has signed himself up for a race with time. “Time is too short and there is so much to do. I think it is all about my greed. I am a greedy mofo,” he chuckles.
“A lot of good projects come my way, but I have to choose as I have my one foot in the West. But I am not complaining,” he quips. After Khufiya, he has the third season of Mirzapur, and then there is another Hollywood project that is scheduled to begin in August, “but I am still trying to figure out how to slip that in. I have Mirzapur to finish before that,” says Fazal. Apart from acting in Hollywood, Bollywood. and OTT projects, he has also turned producer last year, launching a production company with his partner, Richa Chadha, and is penning stories. Not the all work and no play kind of guy, Fazal wants to pace out his work by taking wholesome travel breaks in between. It seems in his world, time has a different algorithm. But the dapper actor is indeed living every nano-second of it.
His recent release Death on the Nile has created quite a buzz. The Kenneth Branagh-directed Agatha Christie adaptation, which has an ensemble cast that includes the likes of Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Armie Hammer, and Letitia Wright, sees Ali play Andrew Katchadourian—a revamped version of Andrew Pennington.
“They have brought down the age of all the characters; hence uncle Andrew has become cousin Andrew. But the dynamics of the characters remain the same,” he points out. For him, this is almost like coming to a full circle. “It was actually the first Agatha Christie book that I had ever read, and I have grown up on a healthy diet of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse—my mom was obsessed with those,” he laughs.
Death on the Nile sees him essay a non-South Asian character. In fact, Andrew Pennington was essayed by Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy in the 1978 John Guillermin adaptation. “This is an out-and-out British man. I have a British accent. But emotions are the same in every language. It is the beats and the rhythms that differ. The intonations are different and they fall differently on your palate. But then it is part of the job of an actor to play such diverse characters. Moreover, watching all those Hollywood movies while growing up has also had some benefits,” he chuckles.
Not many people know this, but Fazal had actually started off with a Hollywood production. It was a small part in James Dodson-directed The Other End of the Line, and the actor had followed it up with Bollywood Hero, American television miniseries, before becoming a true-blue Bollywood hero. “Those hardly count. I was still in college, and I did those gigs for pocket money,” he chortles. “Hollywood happened with Furious 7. That was the first major big studio film. It wasn’t an Indian part and they were not even casting in India,” he reminisces. But how does he land these big Hollywood projects?
“A lot of it is actually by chance,” he quips. “For Victoria and Abdul, I wasn’t even called for the audition. I was sitting with an agent and she randomly mentioned that there is this casting happening for this film. In fact, she just nonchalantly said, ‘They were casting in India but I think today is the last day. It was around 5 pm already. Almost the entire Bollywood had auditioned for it by then. I called the casting person and requested if I could record an audition on my phone and send it. And that is how I landed the film. I didn’t audition for Death on the Nile, it was a reading. Kenneth Branagh had seen my work in Victoria and Abdul,” he reveals.
Over the last few years, especially after Priyanka Chopra’s turn as the ethnically ambiguous Alex Parrish in Quantico, Hollywood has really warmed up to South-Asian/Indian-origin actors, and they are increasingly seen playing non-ethnically defined characters in mainstream Hollywood and on American television thanks to colour-blind castings and the recently-introduced inclusivity clauses. “Now, I have the entire world as my stage. We are getting to be part of global stories,” says Fazal. But according to him, “Diversity is still not diverse enough and inclusivity needs to be more inclusive. But these can also backfire. It is a thin line—if you are showing something historical, then you must show the right ethnicity. Death on the Nile is a fictional account; although a period film. But the cast here is as diverse. Then there are instances like there was a project I recently lost, it was a part of a man in a wheelchair. They found someone who is actually wheelchair-bound, and can act. I am still grappling with these; trying to understand the various sides of the conversation,” he adds.
Although opportunities are opening up for Indian-origin actors in Hollywood, it is mostly the NRI population settled in the US or the UK grabbing those roles. In fact, Fazal is the only Bollywood actor from his generation to have managed to get a foothold there. “It is happening but the process is slow, and one of the major reasons for this is that we don’t champion our own. It happens a bit in the South cinema where you watch a movie and then you have five movies made by the ADs working on that movie, and its director presenting those movies. It is a beautiful cycle where people are championing one another and the industry is excelling as a whole. This doesn’t happen in Bollywood. We have to get into that headspace where we are confident enough in our own work and back our colleagues. About time we get out of our little cocoons and boundaries and start playing the big game. Storytelling on a global level, rather than focusing on appeasing our little group of people,” he says.
However, according to him, although it is important to reach out to a global audience, an actor doesn’t need a ‘Hollywood-approved’ stamp for validation. “I don’t understand why we still look up to Hollywood? Why do we need their validation? Wahan se U-turn maar ke aao phir tumhe yahan izzat milegi (Come back from here to be respected here)—we need to get out of this mindset.”
What excites Fazal more than the Hollywood stamp, is the prospect of international collaborations. “Girls Will Be Girls, a film Richa (Chadha) and I are producing as our maiden venture under Pushing Buttons Studios, is an Indo-French collaboration. It is an interesting time. But if you think of it, all this was set in motion during our golden age of cinema, with Satyajit Ray,” says the actor invoking the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Last year, Fazal was part of the Netflix anthology on Satyajit Ray’s short stories, and his powerful and nuanced performance as a corporate head-honcho whose perfectly organised and time-stamped world slowly crumbles driving him to insanity, in the segment called Forget Me Not, had grabbed eyeballs.
With his production house, he is aiming to create a mutually beneficial ecosystem of artistes. “We are having home productions and also productions outside, and we are not restricting this to just films, there is also a music wing, we will be getting into podcasts as well. It is more like a portal for artistes to come and jam and collaborate, and not to get held back because that was the biggest issue we faced when we were starting off. We are also ensuring that artistes get a piece of the pie to the point of even having shares in the profit. But we are taking it slow. I am writing my own stuff. But I don’t want to sideline my acting,” says Fazal.
“I still regret not going to a film school and not knowing the grammar. Everything that I have learned was on the job, by reading books or watching YouTube videos. Yes, I can pull off a Kandahar maybe, but I know I can’t pull off a Shakespeare because you need to learn that. But we have been conditioned in such a way that we are more concerned about the image, the hairstyle, the six-pack abs, than the acting. I am trying to break out of that.”
His turn as the beefy Hulkish gangster Guddu Pandit in the Amazon Prime Video series Mirzapur, which has since become iconic, was in complete contrast to Joy Lobo, the drone-obsessed student in 3 Idiots. Be it singing songs and romancing Vidya Balan in Bobby Jasoos or playing the Rumi-quoting Indian confidant to Dame Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul, Ali Fazal not only picks but also aces diverse characters. It seems he is also at the right place at the right time. The world is bursting with opportunities for actors like him. Hollywood is becoming more inclusive, the OTT boom is pushing Indian web show creators to aim for international standards and to compete with high-quality OTT content, Bollywood is also reinventing itself.
“OTTs have become what the studios used to be; they are now the big players. And the pandemic has escalated their power to the next level. Things are definitely changing for the better. Now, you are a button away from rejection. If there is an Indian show on an OTT platform, there is also an American or European show on the same platform. So you have to pull up your socks and aim at making a show that a person in India will watch over those two other shows, and also a person sitting in Mexico will opt for. But cinema has its own mazaa. We will find a balance between the two soon,” the Mirzapur actor weighs in.
According to him, OTTs might have proved to be the game-changers ushering in the era of author-backed roles for actors, but the ‘Bollywood heroes’, like Bollywood, are here to stay and he says, “Bollywood heroes are not going anywhere, but they are becoming more nuanced. Of course, I am excited if the movie is driven by me and I am projected as the hero; I have been part of this world. But along with that, now the story is also becoming crucial and the writers are becoming very important.”
But with so much on the platter to choose from, what is it that he is really keen on taking up next? “People often tell me that I should do more action films. Kandahar has mad action and I have thoroughly enjoyed that, but I love comedy, romantic comedies. I would love to do a good simple love story. I think these days films are so driven by some mudda—there is so much pushing of some agenda or talking about issues that I really crave for a simple film. Even when we attempt a love story these days, it is so full of twists and turns—like everything is fine, they are in love but then it is revealed that she is a dragon,” he breaks into hearty laughter. “I would also love to do Malayalam cinema, I would take my time and learn the language.”
What about web shows then? We ask Guddu Bhaiya. “Cinema is more satisfying than a web series. I have only done one web show. It is like shooting three films back-to-back. I get bored of myself. It will take a lot of energy to invest in another web show,” he signs off.
Describe your style in three words
Marlon Brando meets Alexander McQueen
Three essentials you don’t step out without?
A cap, my sunglasses, and a book (even if I am not reading it)
A gadget you aspire to own?
An alarm clock that also makes my coffee when I wake up; I already have it
If you were to pick one designer item to wear for the rest of your life, what would it be?
What was your last luxury purchase?
Who is your favourite designer?
Alexander McQueen; I am a big fan
Pick One Style: printed everything or head-to-toe black?