There’s an earnestness in the way Ali Fazal talks on screen. Whether it’s in a throwaway scene in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Khufiya (2023), when he’s describing his wife's (Wamiqa Gabbi) green top after spotting her for the first time at a railway station, or when he’s trying to convince a Dean (Boman Irani) to give him an extension for an “impractical” project in Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009) – his breakout film. Believe it or not, the project isn’t as improbable as Fazal turning ‘hero’ for popular Hindi content in the near future. An alumna of the Economics course at St. Xavier’s Mumbai, Fazal admits to being seduced by the life of actors. But he also claims he was in denial around the time, despite being active on the theatre circuit. “I think somewhere I was lying to myself, I was deeply attracted to this (acting).” Fazal recounts on a call with Film Companion. Even in a role lasting two scenes, the average viewer knew Fazal’s sincerity wasn’t run of the mill.
Over a decade and half, the 36-year-old actor’s journey has been that of a stubborn tributary. He’s charted his course through some unconventional choices like playing a sigma-male in Vidya Balan’s Bobby Jasoos (2014), Hollywood projects like Furious 7 (2015), short films like Arati Kadav’s The Astronaut And His Parrot, a limited series podcast called Virus 2062, while juggling franchises like Fukrey. He’s also the face of a marquee Amazon Prime show – Mirzapur (2018) – for which Fazal underwent a remarkable physical transformation. When I asked him why we didn’t see the Before/After pictures of him in the media – something that populates an actor’s PR (public relations) package each time they pull something off – Fazal laughs it off.
A large part of a Hindi film actor’s career has to do with how the audience perceives them, numbers attached to their social media or opening weekend box office of the last release. Looking at the lack of PR blitz around Fazal’s exploits, it could give you an impression he’s just another actor embracing the grind. But those watching closely over the last decade will tell you about his ability to conjure magic on screen, even if the project around him immolates. It’s a skill more impressive than one might imagine – emerging unscathed out of films or shows they’re in.
As a child, being put to sleep by these dramatically narrated bedtime stories told by his mother – which he would later realise was the plot of the Godfather films – maybe it was only a matter of time Fazal was smitten by the medium. “I knew there was some trick to it because of how I was instantly fascinated by them.” Starting off with small roles – in two Indo-American projects, apart from 3 Idiots – Fazal doesn’t consider them acting jobs per se. “It was like gig work for me, nice pocket money while I was in college – and ones I got by the virtue of being at the right place at the right time,” he remembers.
Fazal considers himself really naive around this early part of his career, because after getting recognition for 3 Idiots, he was chosen for Always Kabhi Kabhi (2011). A film set in a high school, produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment – Fazal might have imagined that he might have got his foot in the door. “I remember the film came out on a Friday when six films were released together. I asked the trade analyst why he wasn’t reporting the collections of Always Kabhi Kabhi – he very sweetly told me that it was because the film wasn’t doing very well,” recounts Fazal. About 500 people’s work for over a year just disappeared on a Friday, and no one spoke about it ever again.
Being short-listed by a big production house – Fazal remembers how he once made a mistake of asking them for a script. It was only later he realised his blunder when the film’s casting director changed, and it eventually got made with someone else and became a big hit. And that’s why the success of Mrighdeep Lamba’s Fukrey (2013) must have come as a respite. It was the film where he met his life-partner, Richa Chadha, and it became a pillar for his career – even though he couldn’t be a part of the third one. It’s a silly franchise – one that has somehow found greater returns with each successive film. One might argue, Fazal is too good an actor for a franchise like Fukrey, but by now he’s also understood the clinical manner in which the market works. “One day I’d like to name this gentleman, who very sweetly explained to me why I’ll never have money invested in me, because of the returns of my films. That’s where my economics background came in, and I was able to understand the mathematics behind these choices – which allowed me to work things backwards, and rationalise certain decisions.”
Despite having understood how the market works, one can still see Fazal taking that leap of faith and jumping into films because they speak to his gut. For eg: Arati Kadav’s The Astronaut And His Parrot – it’s a film realised in a couple of days worth of shoot. Fazal plays a Muslim astronaut severed in deep space with minutes worth of oxygen left, when he serendipitously finds the frequency of an astrologer’s parrot in a temple town, sharing with him a final message for his daughter. It’s a film that feels intensely personal and large in scale, at the same time.
One of Fazal’s attributes as an actor is to take the most obscure internal landscapes and make it seem plausible on screen. During the pandemic, Fazal and Chadha, bankrolled a film called The Underbug – which won an award at last year’s Slamdance festival. Directed by Shujaat Saudagar, shot by Tasadduq Hussain – starring Fazal and Hussain Dalal – the film hasn’t been widely released. “They’re both very close to my heart. Arati came home and told me this story and I thought it was excellent. With Shujaat bhai, it was an experience I’ll never forget. The Underbug came to me when I was the lowest I’ll probably ever be in my life. I’d had a massive personal tragedy (Fazal’s mother passed away in 2020). I wanted to use this film as an excuse to leave the house, but it was something very dark by itself,” said Fazal, and added – “I know these (films) will never get the eyeballs. I’d realised early on that I won’t try to make a film that will be watched by a billion people, and therefore I’ll be famous. It’s not something one can set out to do, that happens by itself.”
Fazal has quietly established a Hollywood career simultaneously, with small parts in films like Furious 7 (2015) and Death on the Nile (2022). He was also a lead in Victoria & Abdul (2017) – alongside Judi Dench. Even though he’s yet to make a mark in Hollywood, one gets the feeling that Fazal is getting there. It might just be a matter of time. He was last seen alongside Gerard Butler in Kandahar (2022). “A lot of people ask me about why I’m not peetoing a dhindora about these roles, and I keep saying to them that I can’t spend a fortune on a PR blitz,” says Fazal, ”Maybe it’s on you to champion me!”
The Underbug, despite not getting a wide release, found its way to Vishal Bhardwaj, who cast him in Khufiya after watching the film. In the role of traitor Anand Mohan – Fazal is superbly understated, even when there seem to be gaps in his character – especially around an exuberant Wamiqa Gabbi, a wonderfully hammy Navnindra Behl, and a stiff, sullen Tabu.
On the work front – Fazal will be next seen in the sequel for Life in a…Metro (2007), a multi-narrative film like most of Anurag Basu’s films recently, along with the third season of Mirzapur. Fazal never likes to make a big deal about the bulking up process for his part in the Amazon Prime show – “My biggest fight with the role (of Guddu) was to keep him away from bodybuilder machismo – which was the hardest part physically, but to take myself out of it completely, so as to let the audience to see how this guy’s head worked.” It’s a wonderfully self-aware performance, where he uses a speech defect of the character to make him seem child-like, while alternating as this wild animal – who is capable of anything, especially when it comes to defending himself.
Fazal describes his process as an actor, as that of a musician. “I’m a big believer in rhythm. It’s like a musician will never play a note when he’s not supposed to, similarly even my expressions are very mathematically mapped out.” Fazal even talks about the way most of us breathe – it’s usually on an eight-bar – and notes that he likes to be present in a scene as much as possible. For him, being in a scene still feels like a child in a toy store – “when you enter a place you love, these colours impact you. And I suppose we have to find the awareness to let ourselves react before you judge – because our first instinct is to judge. We jump to judge.” That explains a lot of the ease in Fazal’s scenes – very rarely does he seem tentative, whether it’s while squabbling with his elderly mother about his affinity for single malt, or when he’s staring down people with a gun in his hand. Each time Ali Fazal is on screen – you know, he means it.