Joy of Actingby Khalid Mohamed July 9 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 24 secs
Khalid Mohamed talks shop and more with Ali Fazal, who has wowed audiences with a wide range of films like Fukrey and Victoria & Abdul, and series like Mirzapur and Ray.
In a dark studio make-up room, I’d met a courteous actor who was learning his dialogue from a sheet of paper for the next shot. Accompanied by a film producer, I’d offered him a script titled Rutba to read and decide whether he would be interested. Perhaps he was taken aback, or in more likelihood, unsure about whether he should say “Yes.” If he didn’t it would be difficult for him to concoct an excuse.
Fair enough. That turned out to be propitious because the producer, with all his noble or ignoble intentions couldn’t have handled the project. He couldn’t have possibly organized sufficient finance required for a project located in the gorgeous, but super-expensive-to-hire Rajasthan palaces. Instead of Rutba, I delved into an authorized remake of Sai Paranjpye’s Katha, with the ever-grinning-turned-ever-hissing producer, completed it in hellacious conditions, only to forget it forever since it’s still mouldering in the cans.
Aah, or else Ali Fazal could have been my Rutba hero. I’m not sure if he remembers that cloudy meeting at all. And here I am blabbering more about myself than the subject du jour. 34-years-old and camera-friendly, he’s more than a competent actor. On watching his turn in the first episode of the series Ray (which, in its entirety, was not to my taste), I found his performance as a cool corporate executive about to lose his mental equilibrium, implosively impressive despite a script which towards the second-half went irksomely helter skelter.
On contacting the actor, he was game for a q and a, suggesting that we do it on a Zoom call or over the phone. Those two devices stymy me. Hence this email of an interview, which, believe me, prevents mis-quotes and those shout-outs on the cell phone, “Can you hear me?” “Oh, the network has gone” and “Huh, can you spell that word out to me?”
Over then to email gabfest with Ali Fazal:
For over a decade, you’ve had quite a zigzagging career. International projects, Bollywood horror films and comedies, cameos occasionally, and now of course, series on digital space. Do you think you have found your niche, your place under the sun so to speak?
Oh lord, just one Bollywood horror film (Khamoshiyan), bas and that’s it, which was actually a nice script to begin with but got dismantled along the way into a bad rendition of a bad copy of yet another bad film , executed, sorry for the pun, by a ghost director.
Anyway, you might be quite right about my constant zigzagging over the decade, but it’s somehow played out rather democratically for me. Now that I look back, it started with a film (Ek Tho Chance) with Saeed Akhtar Mirza saab, which was never released. Then a cameo in 3 Idiots that did me good, onto ensembles and desperate leading parts to assert my existence and then freedom. The geographies shifted, platforms evolved, and I have learnt on the job.
Could you tell me about your struggle – how did a Lucknow boy adapt to the tough city of Mumbai?
Lucknow drained out of me in a flash on the first day at St. Xavier’s College. It was a rush of colors and perfumes and all kinds of people from all over. And that’s what Bombay became for me. I had stepped in to complete my Bachelor’s degree but by the second year I had shot my first film.
I knew I had to make money to fund my final year of college for the degree. I remember using the pay phone at Jhunka Bhakar stall close to the college to summon up the courage to tell my father not to worry about sending me monthly pocket money and the college fees. I lied through my teeth about getting paid by some corporate giant in their special internship program tailor-made for Ali Fazal.
I was scared to be honest - scared to start feeding myself and to lead the insecure life of an actor. Unarguably, though, Bombay made me tough. Having no money and yet saying no to the odd soap operas coming my way was a dilemma. Because there were these black holes ready to suck me in with great pay packets and then piss me out dry… at least that’s the way I thought back then.
So I stuck to theatre, which I enjoyed tremendously. I haven’t changed, I need to enjoy my work. That my money ‘struggle’ has become such a negative word, I think of it as a necessary means to sweat it out and reap the benefits of whatever one dabbles with. Period. So I did like most of my colleagues.
Your performance as a cool corporate executive in the episode of Ray was impactful. Did you have any role models for the character?
An actor has her or himself mostly. After all the workshops, the script readings and the costume trials, it boils down to that one moment of introspection - a dive within oneself.
Occasionally, I pretty much steal from the world around me, all actors do that at different times. I feel my mind is working with hundreds of visuals every second of the day, patching them all into different permutations and combinations, and playing people’s lives out. Not that I pick from that source alone, impersonate or mimic. Rather I take their music - there’s a certain rhythm, which every character and person lives on. Like the bass beat in an orchestra. To sum up then, no I never have a single role model in mind but a whole bunch of real-life people added to the concoction.
How tough or easy was it to move in the course of an episode in Ray, from the time-managed entrepreneur to a psychological breakdown?
As long as it takes for one domino to topple, the rest of them all. It’s a mental graph of sorts. I take a lot from my costumes, my director and the director of photography. So it was all of us moving in sync and maybe sometimes off sync too. But more or less that’s how viewers may have seen it play out in some coherent form. I do believe the process changes with different genres. A biopic would require a different set of tools while a no-holds-barred action flick would need focusing on other avenues if not more.
You appear to have worked on your physique strenuously for the role of the violent gangster in the Mirzapur series. How did you buff up and then get into a lean, slick look for Ray?
The two series had a fair amount of time in between their productions. There was plenty of time to shed off unwanted fat and muscle. Mirzapur required me to look a certain way. In fact, I would be quite cranky on sets. So, I started hanging around with Pankaj Tripathi. His stories and our conversations would lighten me up a little. Cranky because I wasn’t sleeping well. I’d work out for three hours a day and film for 14 hrs. I wasn’t taking steroids, so the work and my diets were very specific.
Having said that, I’m not a big fan of the gymnasium. I use it only when I need to, when I have no other sport or activity at hand. My character, Ipsit Nair, in Ray is a tough guy but not a buffed-up bulgy hero, I had to keep him tamed.
Method acting is often dismissed in our film industry. Do you believe in it?
I wish I knew these methods in depth. Over the years I’ve read several books on the craft, on the Meisner technique, Method acting, Alfred Adler’s Theories, the works. But what stayed with me was a workshop conducted by a bunch of very special people. Adishakti near Pondicherry was my first and only school if I can call it that. It’s an ever-learning experience, which doesn’t end in one workshop. It’s like a constantly evolving laboratory, which was started quite a while ago by Veenapani Chawla. After she passed away, it was headed by Vinay Kumar and Nimmy Raphel. It is the future of rhythm and art form evolving from a 2,000 year old art, Kudiyattam. I could fill up pages on this.
Have you ever ended up choosing some wrong projects? What went wrong with them?
Oh, plenty of them. Maine bahut paap kiye hain. There were times when an actor’s growth is conditioned only to steer towards leading roles. In that quest, many have lost their peace of mind. Maybe I was also running after leading roles without knowing the economics of the film world. I acted in some films, which had no story, no direction. They were merely formula fluff to tickle the viewers on a Friday afternoon. I don’t blame myself though - we were all slaves to the Friday burn. It’s also a bit of a kick, waiting in the wings to see the first reactions pour in. That’s what we have lived for, essentially, until the algorithm came in and wooed us all onto the other side, into the digital.
Khamoshiyan was one wrong choice I made though it gave me hit songs. That’s the magic of Mahesh Bhatt saab, I guess.
Victoria & Abdul was your big moment. Did Judi Dench have any tips for you?
It was a true story, a biopic - an Indian man creating a shit storm in the British royal family. I couldn’t have asked for more. Judi is the most beautiful woman I’ve known in all senses. One of the greatest actors of our times, she might just be more royal than the royalty of England. And yet her humble friendship will stay with me forever. Our chitter chatter through text messages is my little testimony to having learnt from the very best. As for tips, she said I must know my Shakespeare among other things. And I said, “Well, what are the other things Judi?”And she replied, “Let’s rehearse the scene Ali” and that was that.
You’re now a part of the film based on Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Which role do you play?
I play the role of Andrew Katchadurien, which was earlier enacted by George Kennedy in the first production of the book, a pure whodunit. A lot of us have worked hard, we cannot wait for it to hit the theatres. At least I hope we get to see it in the theatres since we shot it on film cameras. It’s directed by one of my favourites Sir Kenneth Brannagh, another wonderful experience after Stephen Frears who helmed Victoria & Abdul.
For an actor of Asian origin, doesn’t he or she need to be based abroad, like say Dev Patel or Frieda Pinto?
I don’t think so. It’s one world now. And projects are happening all over. The major studio offices are in Los Angeles, New York and London. It would be beneficial to be around there but that’s not a must any more. Truly, I feel I can be at 17 places at the same time. Hell, why not? We have stories to tell in India, Timbuktu and the North Pole and I’ll do them all, Inshallah.
As an Asian actor, aren’t opportunities limited abroad?
I’d agree with that but the dialogue has begun. No one knows what the right mix is or the way forward is. Diversity and inclusivity are tricky. I do hope more opportunities and blind castings come my way. The powers-that-be are still figuring ways to settle the anomalies. The stereotypes need to end to begin with. Muslim characters need to evolve for sure. That’s a big conversation waiting to erupt soon.
Muslims across the world have been marginalised caricatures of narratives, which have just been convenient for the longest time. The Musalmaaniyat must show for a Muslim-named character, or else he just blends into the woodwork. For sure, the change is coming. It has to.
In the Fukrey movies, you had a relatively restrained part, compared to the other characters. Were you apprehensive about this at all?
At first, yes. Then I thought if I played a mute character I’d have more presence. But I’m not complaining, Fukrey brought me on the map, it was a huge success.
With the pandemic on, have things slowed down?
Obviously, the world has slowed down. Stopped! It’s been a heavy two years for all of us. But there is always hope that things will pick up in good time.
Is it essential to be a part of some Bollywood ‘camp’ to make it as an A-lister.
I don’t belong to any camp. I have interacted and worked with diametrically different sides and I respect them all. It’s such a small community as it is, it would be futile to think of it as a divisive one. By the way, I’d definitely want to work with the Malayalam ‘camp’, Kerala has been producing outstanding work.
Talking about the pandemic that has led to the postponement of your marriage to Richa Chadda. Any timelines set?
No timelines really. We’ll celebrate our marriage with everyone when the world opens up .
How would you describe Richa as an actor and as a person? She’s extremely concerned about our conditions today. Do you prefer to keep a low profile on Twitter and other social media platforms?
I am Richa’s biggest fan. An actor with that much compassion for the world can only be a good actor. We are a vulnerable yet brave breed who want to tell stories and leave the world as a better place. Art holds a very important place in history. That’s evident in all societies, modern or historic. Richa sees the world where people have tasted love, alas a place where the unpopular movement now has touched us all. Perhaps as James Baldwin would say, “Not everyone has loved or been loved.” If they did, they would treat their children differently.
What are the prevailing conditions? The pandemic or its handling? The oxygen? Or its supply? Religion or its play-out? Politics or its corporatisation? It’s endless. And so we question it from time to time - that’s no crime. At the same time I do believe Twitter is a platform, which because of its nature brings out hate in people.
Someone has so rightly pointed out that total strangers are validating or trolling us. It’s a dicey space with limited characters. On the brighter side, the one time it has really helped is in reaching out to people to help during the current crisis.
Could you define what acting means to you?
It means to be able to listen and react. Still, I don’t have any quick-fix answers. I can only tell you, when I was a kid, I’d act to make my mother laugh. Those moments are priceless. To be able to change the mood in the room was my victory. In that sense acting has some relevance in my life but I don’t want to glorify the profession beyond a point.
In the same vein, could you describe what love means to you. Have you fallen in love many times, in terms of crushes and friendships?
I’ve had relationships and I have loved. Love’s a tingly little nerve-ending that doesn’t really warn you where it’s going to pop up on your body. I have loved some women in my life. And I will love them all for the rest of my days. They’ve contributed to my being in ways I will never fully understand and maybe I don’t need to.
Of late, you’ve been devoting time to writing. Why? Is it a script, a novel or something entirely different.
A script, two scripts. Why? Because I can write stories but I have to learn the art of screenplay writing. It takes an incalculable amount of time to structure a script. It will take a while perhaps but I’m sure I will whip out a few, because hopefully I’m a fast learner.
How much of a Lucknow boy are you still?
There’s a bit of a twist there. I am from Allahabad from my father’s side. I am Lucknowi because I grew up there with my mother and grandparents till I left for a boarding school in Dehradun. Poetry, literature, chaos wrapped in Victorian hangovers - these were the highs of my childhood apart from small things like gorging on La Martiniere College ke bun kebabs. These cities reside in me.
Any thoughts on returning to theatre, where you began?
Definitely! I’ve tasted blood. Often I’d walk over the Prithvi for a cup of chai. But these days it’s all been shut. I do hope that theatre revives but the focus has been solely on cinema houses re-opening.
Which five films, five books and five actors who have a major influence on you?
Okay vis-à-vis films, I’d say On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Mughal-e-Azam, Mera Naam Joker, Shatranj ke Khilari and am I allowed to say this? - Sardari Begum.
The books I cherish are Lust for Life (on Vincent Van Gogh), The Kite Runner, Woody Allen’s Side Effects, The Groucho Marx collection, some of the books by P.G.Wodehouse, and Kafka’s The Trial.
And some of my top actors are Marlon Brando, Dilip Kumar, Sanjay Dutt, Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis. They have all influenced me at various different phases of my life.
Are you smiling or scowling while going through these questions?
Hahahahah.. I wish this was the fourth question. Just kidding, I am amused and wearing a smile.
And lastly, if I were to ask you first, what upsets you and second, what makes you feel elated?
People who pick up the phone and talk about themselves without the basic courtesy of a “Hello”, “How are you?”, “Is this a good time to call?, “Have I caught you at a decent time?” Just ask. Etiquette has taken a fall in the last decade.
What makes me happy is when I am able to feed people. Like literally, cook and feed and see someone eating to one’s heart’s content. That’s my feel-great moment.