Actor Ali Fazal had never heard of Abdul Karim, the Indian man who served as Queen Victoria’s servant and became her trusted adviser, until he received the script for his new film “Victoria and Abdul.”
“It was pretty unfortunate that there was a story of an [Indian] man who had something to do with Queen Victoria and I almost didn’t know about it,” Fazal told NBC News. “It was a very convenient erasure.”
“Victoria and Abdul,” which opened in the U.S. on Sept. 22, stars Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Fazal as her servant-turned-adviser. It follows the pair from Karim's arrival in England for the queen's golden jubilee to his return to India following her death.
The real Abdul Karim was selected to leave his home in India in 1887 and serve the queen. A clerk at a jail, he traveled to England after receiving a crash course in manners, nobility, and life at the height of the British Empire.
“And then this man landed in the middle of all that,” Fazal said. “It wasn’t a pretty picture in India then and Bertie [Victoria’s son, Edward VII] and the rest of the royal family were constantly trying to contain this story.”
A big part of the reason for this was because Karim was a controversial figure in Victoria’s world, especially when he became known as “the Munshi” — the Urdu word for teacher — and began teaching the monarch Urdu in addition to advising her on state matters.
Efforts to minimize the relationship between Victoria and Abdul included the burning of all of the correspondence between the two after Victoria’s death in 1901. Abdul was also ordered to leave his home in England and return to India two days after Victoria's funeral.
Fazal acknowledged that the story of a Muslim man met with hostility would particularly resonate with moviegoers in 2017. “These things that were underlined in the script totally mirrored the emotions of the world right now,” he said. “But it preaches hope and love.”
Though some critics have taken issue with “Victoria and Abdul” for not showing the brutality of colonialism in South Asia, Fazal says the film does the monarchy no favors.
“It pretty much mocks the British Empire in some ways,” he said. “There was so much racism back then and still even now. You look at the poster [and see Karim with Queen Victoria] and think, ‘This doesn’t fit.’”
Part of the reason the image may not fit in viewers’ minds is because, while England is known for producing dozens of historical dramas each year, actors of color rarely appear.
“I want to be able to work with directors who are willing to write parts that are not stereotypical,” Fazal said. “There’s some really good stuff out there right now.”
While Fazal has appeared in both Bollywood (appearing in hits like “3 Idiots”) and Hollywood (“Furious 7”) in recent years, he said that acting was not his first love while growing up. “I was a basketball player, a [field] hockey player, I did athletics,” he recalled.
All of that abruptly came to a stop when he was in tenth grade at his boarding school in the Himalayas.
“I broke my arm. And then a friend said, ‘Oh, your English isn’t bad, you should come to theater. They were doing ‘The Tempest,’ and I played Trinculo,” he said. “To be on stage and have so many people watching, it really gives you a sense of discipline.”
While “Victoria and Abdul” is Fazal’s first time starring in a Western film, he resists classifying the move as a transition.
“It’s a really good time to be an actor. The world is getting smaller,” he noted. “There’s Netflix and Amazon in India now. And Bollywood is not all song and dance anymore.”