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Interview British

Ali Fazal brings out Abdul's innocence and charm: Shrabani Basu, author of Victoria & Abdul

Basu, whose book on the friendship between queen Victoria and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, has been adapted into a movie, speaks about the journey from novel to feature film.

Courtesy: Shrabani Basu

Sonal Pandya

Victoria & Abdul is winning over audiences with its charming portrayal of the rapport between an ageing queen of England and her manservant from India.

The film had its world premiere at the Venice festival and received a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival for its leading duo, Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, who play queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, respectively.

It all began with Shrabani Basu’s 2010 book, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant. The book takes its readers through the arrival of a young Abdul Karim in England for Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 and the subsequent meeting and friendship between the monarch and her munshi (teacher).

The film, co-produced by Working Title Films and BBC Films, has been adapted from Basu's novel by Lee Hall, screenwriter of acclaimed films like Billy Elliot (2000), Pride And Prejudice (2005) and War Horse (2011). Stephen Frears, the Oscar-nominated director of The Queen (2006), was chosen to helm the project.

Actress Judi Dench, who has previously worked with Frears on Mrs Henderson Presents (2005) and Philomena (2013), stepped in as Victoria while Indian actor Ali Fazal beat out a long of list of actors to bag the prestigious international role.

Ali Fazal: Judi Dench is like a 16-year-old girl

Basu, who also attended the film's screening at Toronto with the cast and crew, spoke to Cinestaan.com via email amidst a hectic schedule about the chemistry between Dench and Fazal and her experience of watching the film for the first time.

Courtesy: Shrabani Basu

How did you first find out about the friendship between Victoria and Abdul? Were you aware of their connection?

I knew queen Victoria loved curries and had some Indian servants. It was on a trip to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight that I saw his portraits in the Indian Corridor and his photograph in her dressing room and knew he was someone special. I later read queen Victoria's journals and her Hindustani journals at Windsor Castle and knew this was a special relationship.

It took four years to piece together the story. Finally, I found Abdul Karim's diary in Karachi and could put the whole story together.

You discovered Abdul's long-lost diary and spoke about finding it as an emotional moment. How did that add to and further your book?

This diary was his personal account. It was his own voice. I could see how he felt when he first went to England. I learnt that he actually wanted to go back [home], because he said he was not a servant and did not want to do menial work, but the queen asked him to stay back as she wanted to learn Hindustani from him. It was a significant discovery.

How did the opportunity to adapt your book into the film come about? Did you ever think it had cinematic possibilities when you were writing it?

The book was optioned as soon as it was published as there were very good reviews in the papers. There were many studios bidding for it, but I chose to go with screenplay writer Lee Hall and Working Title. I thought it was a good combination.

The book has many dramatic moments and is a great and unusual story, so I am not surprised that it interested filmmakers. While writing it, I was focusing on unearthing the facts, so not thinking about the film.

How faithful is the film to your book?

It has covered the main plot points and begins and ends like the book. Certain events have been altered slightly and the film has artistic licence, as it is a feature film.

When you were writing the book, you must have imagined both Victoria and Abdul in your mind. How do Judi Dench and Ali Fazal match up?

Judi Dench is perfect as Victoria. She owns the role. Ali Fazal brings out the innocence and charm of the 24-year-old Abdul when he reaches England very well. They share a great chemistry.

When was the first time you saw the film? What was your initial reaction and what do you think of the final product?

I saw it in summer and loved it. It is funny and sad and brings out the special relationship very well. Audiences in the Venice and Toronto film festivals have loved it.

The film is garnering up Oscar buzz for Dench, screenwriter Hall and director Frears. What do you make of the film gaining attention and love from audiences and critics alike?

I think they all deserve it. I would add Eddie Izzard and Adeel Akhtar for best supporting actors as well as Consolata Boyle for costumes.

Are you working on any new book or project now?

I am working on something. It takes me a long time to research my books, so it will take some time.

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