Ali Fazal

Taking India to the World

Hollywood's flavor du jour and India's Guddu bhaiyya spills the beans on finally locking a date for his wedding with long-time sweetheart Richa Chadha, his journey from Joy Lobo to Cousin Andrew, his love for Shakespearean dramas and much more. In our first Aza Man Cover Story, we catch up with the brilliant Ali Fazal.
Photographs by Ajay Kadam; Styled by Anisha Gandhi & Rochelle D'sa Syiemiong; Styling assistant Komal Soni; HMU by Arbaz Shaikh & Sandeep Mohod; Artist PR Hardly Anonymous Communications; Creative direction Arthi Medithi; Words by Sreemita Bhattacharya

It's the first Aza Man Cover Story and we cannot keep calm. Cue drumroll as we introduce our cover star for Aza's Dapper Edit 2022: globally sought after, loved, and admired actor Ali Fazal. Why Ali, you ask? Well, I have a bulleted list for you. Here goes:
  • He's Guddu bhaiyya. Unless you’ve been living in a parallel dimension far removed from Mirzapur, you know who Govind aka Guddu Pandit is (and that he’s returning with a vengeance in the Season 3 of the Amazon Prime Video series).
  • Ali is the toast of Hollywood ATM. A role was tailor-made for him in the latest screen-adaptation of the Hercule Poirot murder mystery, Death on the Nile, starring Kenneth Branagh and Gal Gadot. If that wasn't enough, he just finished shooting for Ric Roman Waugh's Kandahar, alongside Gerard Butler. Oh, and he helmed Victoria & Abdul with Dame Judi Dench and had a significant part in Furious 7.
  • He plays a key role in Vishal Bhardwaj's upcoming spy thriller, Khufiya, headlined by Tabu.
  • Ali and his partner Richa Chadha’s first production, Girls Will Be Girls recently received funding under the Aid Aux Cinemas Du Monde, a grant handed out by the French government. The couple has also launched a first-of-its-kind lab for women who wish to work as gaffers in films. #GirlPower.
  • At the end of the day, there’s more to this thinking actor than his elegant visage. Keep reading.
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Clothing, Amit Aggarwal; Glasses, Bottega Veneta

I was informed a minute in advance - precisely 7 minutes past the shoot call time - that Ali was riding up the elevator to the studio. But that didn't prepare me for the rarity that's Ali. Why rarity? Because instead of immediately retreating to the green room, the global star made it a point to greet everyone and mention, “I was on time, waiting downstairs. My manager was late.” Now, you know you've met a fellow observer when you find them studying the people around as attentively as you are them. An actor with roots in theatre, I see him taking mental notes on the space, his creative playground for the day. All of it while listening, evaluating and reflecting. Exuding casual chic in a vintage salmon-hued tee that reads 'Enjoy Coca Cola' and anti-fit denims he has paired with a red Chicago Bulls cap worn backwards, camo-print prescription glasses and white sneakers, Ali meticulously studies and selects from a multitude of options the uber-luxe silhouettes that he will don during the shoot. Then, task complete, he shifts his focus to syncing his playlist to the studio speakers. Much like him, I realize later, his playlist is a mix of classic and contemporary. And throughout the day, we enjoy everything from Edith Piaf to Sidhu Moosewala.
I remember Raju (Hirani) Sir had said my character had to sing Give Me Some Sunshine in 3 Idiots. Now, I had this tiny phone at that time and - I probably shouldn't be saying this - I had chupke se recorded the song so I could memorize it. I used to listen to it on the local trains while studying for my exams.

Ali-ttle Bit of Shakespeare

It takes Ali exactly 25 minutes to get ready for the first look. This deserves special mention for being an absolute novelty for the Aza crew shooting our first men's Cover Story. We'll plead the Fifth here on the “how long do actresses usually take to get ready” question you may be dying to ask. He patiently waits as our lensman finishes preparing the elaborate backdrop for our monsoon-themed shoot. As I watch him fondly follow the chaos on the sets, I ask Ali if he finds it ironic that he began his acting stint in school with The Tempest, believed to be one of the last plays penned by the Bard. Shrill, screechy noises erupt from the sets as our production hands unroll the background paper. Beside me, Ali waits for the commotion to end before saying in an entirely matter-of-fact manner, “Um, yeah, you got that?” He breaks out in chuckles before sobering up and saying, “Well yeah, as someone enamoured with Shakespeare, it makes me feel pretty cool but also very uneducated because there are so many of his plays that I haven't been able to explore yet. Plays I want to be a part of. As Dame Judi Dench says, 'Always know your Shakespeare'. I am currently working on something - an experimental kind of project that involves Shakespeare. It'll be a surprise, hopefully.”
Ali_Fazal_in_Seema_Gujral_Black_Giza_Cotton_Parsi_Embroidered_Tuxedo_And Pant_Set
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Clothing, Seema Gujral;Necklace, Ali's Own

Once Upon The Beatles

From the corner of my eye, I notice some of my crew members gushing over Ali in a tuxedo. While I'm tempted to join them, my curiosity about this enigmatic man who laughs as easily as he delivers brooding looks wins out. So I stay put and ask if he recalls the time he “played” Trinculo at The Doon School - the first time he took the stage for acting. “Oh, I remember everything. We have a fascinating amphitheatre on campus called the Rose Bowl. I remember performing there, and it was a full house! I was in Std X. (pauses briefly) There was a very interesting gypsy family that had come down to direct the play; the father was directing the production.” At this point, a sheepish smile takes hold of his face as Ali continues. “I sort of ended up dating one of his daughters, who was playing Miranda. Back in those days, it was like a huge thing because it's an all-boys school! I give her credit because she introduced me to The Beatles, which I thought changed my world forever. You know, I was suddenly listening to A Hard Day's Night!” He snickers some more before adding, “So yeah, that was one big event apart from obviously the play. Now that I think of it, that year was eventful in my life. Like in athletics, I spiked myself. I broke my arm later. It changed the course of my life because I was a basketball player. But here I am today, so all is well.”
You know I feel stupid sometimes because maybe I should have focused more on the acting. But for 3 Idiots I went ahead and actually studied the entire mechanics of how you make a drone from scratch.

3 Things about Joy Lobo

With his last three words (“all is well”), Ali gives me the exact segue I need to commence my 20 questions on his big break with 3 Idiots. But I wait until he finishes shooting the second look before inquiring how he found himself in the shoes of the unforgettable Joy Lobo in the Raju Hirani film. The topic evokes warm memories, I realize, when Ali smiles broadly. “I think Raju Sir had seen me in a play. I was doing a lot of theatre around that time, in the second year of college at St Xaviers, Mumbai. One day I remember getting a call saying, 'Please aa jao.' I was wearing this half-sleeved checked shirt - I still have that shirt - when I went to his office. After we read the scene together, he said, 'This is great. By the way, can you keep this shirt on for the role?' And that's the shirt I wore in the movie.” A soft chuckle later, Ali confides, “I remember Raju Sir had said my character had to sing Give Me Some Sunshine in the film. Now, I had this tiny phone at that time and - I probably shouldn't be saying this - I had chupke se recorded the song so I could memorize it. I used to listen to it on the local trains while studying for my exams.”
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Clothing, Linen Bloom;Glasses, Rosvin Bugs;Necklace & Bracelet, Misho;Ring, House of Shikha;Shoes, Regal Shoes

The Glocal Star

Let it be mentioned here that Ali seems adorably shy until he warms up to you, and then he's downright goofy, with energy that's infectious. I watch amazed as he delivers pose after pose, as if silently conversing with the camera lens and narrating a fantastic tale. His bandwidth of expressions explains how, within a little over a decade, Ali has managed to make the world his stage. From Furious 7, Victoria & Abdul and Death on the Nile to Kandahar, what's it like being an international actor, I wonder aloud. Ali carefully selects his words while sifting through eyewear options for the Amit Aggarwal outfit and says, “It keeps you humble because you realize you are a minuscule part of this global stage. But yes, the narratives and stories give you the license to tower over - even if just geographically - everybody, at some point. I feel blessed that even with an Indian show like Mirzapur we've reached 200 countries. Then came Victoria & Abdul and Death in the Nile - these were big global releases. So, suddenly you're being watched by all kinds of audiences. It opens up your perception of the kind of content consumption that's happening. You get to share notes with other globally-placed artistes because the world just got a little smaller. But there's also the responsibility to keep pushing the bar. I have to do it for myself because I need to keep surprising myself as a performer. Also, as a proud Indian who has been lucky enough to travel far and wide, I like knowing I have contributed to increasing the subcontinent's footprint on the global map.”
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Clothing, Siddhartha Bansal;Accessories, House of Shikha;Shoes, Christian Louboutin

Ali Uncharted

Through the course of the day, I see Ali taking a keen interest in all aspects of the shoot, willingly giving suggestions to refine the results. Evidently, he's an improver or an enhancer, if you may. It leads me to wonder, given that he has done so many book-to-film adaptations - 3Idiots (Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat), Victoria & Abdul (by Shrabani Basu), Death on the Nile (by Agatha Christie), Khufiya (Escape to Nowhere by Amar Bhushan) - is the scope for improvisation greater in adaptations or do the defined characters tend to limit him? A few seconds of musing later Ali explains, “I feel all scripts are limited in their own way, but you have to collaborate with the makers and your co-actors to delve deeper and deliver something valuable. For Victoria & Abdul, I didn't even read the entire book. It was very detailed, their bond spanning almost 15 years. Meanwhile, the script was a dreamy ode to love. It wasn't really an amorous kind of love they shared but like that of a mother and son or a teacher and a student. It was spiritual to an extent and you can’t derive that intensity from a single book. I read 10 more books to understand that era and the history. So, I had a rough structure to work around and something new, too. I feel that's the fun of being a part of book-to-film adaptations.” Even as he says this, the photographer calls him on the floors and I watch Ali sportingly climbing atop a huge prop box to pose for our shoot. He soon realizes it's a hollow box. A few curses are silently muttered a la Guddu bhaiyya style and we, the crew, split our sides laughing.

And Then Comes Guddu

Twice during the shoot, I find Ali sitting completely at ease, in peace, on the floor biding his time while the set around him buzzes with changes. Amidst the constant hullabaloo inside the studio, I observe him browsing his phone to find apt songs to match the ambience. It baffles me to think he's the same guy who portrays the intense Guddu Pandit in Mirzapur. Did Ali expect Guddu bhaiyya to achieve such a cult status when he signed up for the role? He's quick to answer, “No, actually. But I did believe in Guddu. I wanted to do something that would put me in an uncomfortable spot. For any role, I explore about 70% of the character and the remaining inspiration comes from the costumes. With Guddu I knew I was doing something very different. So I spent hours with the costume designers, understanding their perception of the individual I had to portray through the character.”
For any role, I explore about 70% of the character and the remaining inspiration comes from the costumes. With Guddu I knew I was doing something very different. So I spent hours with the costume designers, understanding their perception of the individual I had to portray through the character.

And what was it like working with stalwarts like Pankaj Tripathi and Kulbhushan Kharbanda? Ali is all smiles as he says, “Pankaj-ji actually kept me sane during the filming. I used to be really cranky on the sets and Pankaji-ji would always have these wonderful chutkulas and stories that he shared to keep the mood up. And Kulbhushan Sir is a legend. I had few interactions with him but he's an institution. I was over the moon when he messaged me once saying, 'Mujhe tumhara kaam bohot pasand aaya'.”
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Clothing, Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna;Sunglasses, Gucci;Shoes, Christian Louboutin

The Wedding Has a Date!

As the shoot draws to a close, I embark on the topic he once joked “must sound like a scam” to his fans because it keeps getting delayed - his wedding to partner, actress Richa Chadha. I'm absolutely blunt in asking Ali if they have a date set. Looking amused, he replies, “Date yes, I do. But I won't tell. In the backdrop of the pandemic, we want to keep it a small, low-key affair.” I'm barely suppressing my excitement as I prod further on whether he has decided on the kind of silhouettes he will don for the wedding. He's borderline exasperated, but still indulges me: “I'd like it to be a mix of traditional and contemporary. I think I will leave that job to my styling team, also depending on the different places where we will be hopefully celebrating. But definitely something quirky yet comfortable. I'd love to wear colours. We haven't yet planned it out. For all you know I'd dress up like a pirate! That will be cool, right?” I nod animatedly, envisioning the handsome pirate groom.
We have decided on a wedding date, yes. But I won't tell. In the backdrop of the pandemic, we want to keep it a small, low-key affair.

Love, Actually

Significantly, Ali met Richa on the sets of Fukrey. He shares, “I had seen her before. I tried to meet up with her. I tried to do another film with her but that didn't happen. In fact, she left the project and I ended up doing it. Side note: if that film ever sees the light of the day, I'm done! (chuckles) But yeah, I was a big fan of hers. I still am. Till date, I think nobody could have pulled off Nagma Khatoon like she did in Gangs of Wasseypur, and that too at such a young age. I'm not just saying this because she's my partner. In fact, she shouldn't read this at all - she would gloat!” he laughs quietly.”
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Clothing, Three;Footwear, Onitsuka Tiger India

So, what's the most elaborate thing you’ve done for Richa, I ask with starry eyes. The commotion on the sets has died down now and Ali lowers the normal pitch of his voice to match my quieter volume when he confides, “I once made a copy of Richa's flat keys without her knowledge. I wanted to do something special for her birthday. I got a dear friend of mine - a renowned chef - into her apartment and told her to set the table with a delectable five-course meal. Of course, prior to that I had called up her closest friends to find out the dishes she loves. Then I set up a lovely candlelit dinner inside her house.” And what happened when she found out you had a duplicate key for her apartment, I promptly inquire? Ali snickers before sharing, “She was fine with it! Yeah, she was okay. She was like, 'It's cute. I was about to give you a copy of my keys anyway'. And I was like oh, okay!” He dramatically sighs to show his relief.
Both Richa and I came up with the name 'Pushing Buttons Studios' at the same time. You'll find out who pushes whose buttons more once you see the film.

Pushing All The Right Buttons

While on the topic of Richa and Ali as a couple, who ideated the name of their production house, Pushing Buttons Studios, and what's the back story, I want to know. He laughs out loud before saying, “We both came up with the name at the same time. You'll find out who pushes whose buttons more once you see the film. But yes, as producers, we are very excited about this project. We plan to go into production by September. It's an all-woman team. Our director, Shuchi Talati has penned the script. It's a slice-of-life film based on a mother-daughter relationship. Purely on the basis of the script we have received 78 grants from various countries.”

Eat, Pray, Love

The homely aroma of steaming hot idlis and medu vadas permeates the air as snacks are brought in for everyone at the end of the day. Having read once that Ali is a foodie and plans to open a restaurant someday, I turn to ask his fondest food memories from childhood. As if immediately transported back home to Lucknow, Ali takes a soothing breath filled with longing and shares, “Breakfast at Raheem's at Chowk in Lucknow. Or Kashmiri chai at 3 am in the morning during the Ramzan month. It's a unique beverage that is pink, has saffron, and is sweet and salty at the same time. My brothers are always waiting for me to visit Lucknow so we can go out together and savour a cup of Gulabi chai.” And on that delectable note, with tiny paper cups of cutting chai in our hands, we raise a toast to memories that never fail to make us smile.

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