Shrabani Basu Interview

Victoria & Adbul is an interesting true story that is about to be released in Australian cinemas.  I had the chance to speak with the author of the book on which it is based, Shrabani Basu, to ask about her research and the film itself…

Matt:  Can you tell us what inspired the book in the first place?

Shrabani:  I’d heard a little bit about Queen Victoria’s love for curries and I knew she had some Indian servants who cooked for her.  I travelled to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and they have an Indian corridor with paintings of Indian rulers and soldiers.  In between them was a portrait of Abdul Karim where he was wearing red, gold and cream.  He did not look like a servant so that intrigued me.  I then saw a lot of photographs of him and it was evident that he was quite special.  There was even a photograph of him placed in the Queen’s dressing room which was placed below a photo of John Brown who was also a very special person to her.  I decided to do a bit more investigating and that’s what started the journey.

Matt:  Was there any interaction with the Royal Family or Buckingham Palace in putting the book together? 

Shrabani:  My first stop was Windsor Castle because that’s where Queen Victoria’s journals are kept.  I asked for permission to access the archives and read her journals.  She wanted to learn Urdu from Abdul Karim and there are 13 volumes of journals that she wrote in that language.  No one had seen them before because Western biographers wouldn’t have understood them and so they hadn’t been opened.  That shed a lot of light on the story.

I then went to Agra, India which was Abdul’s home town.  I visited his grave and found his family who had told me about Abdul’s own journals which were being kept in Karachi.  That led to me a third country, Pakistan.  It was a long process with 4 years of research and we finally got the story in the end.     

Matt:  Was there further information that came out after the book’s release?  I can imagine it would have got the attention of many people who read it.

Shrabani:  It was actually after the first edition of the book was released when Abdul Karim’s family contacted me.  In the press interviews for book, I was saying that I had been looking for the family but was struggling because Abdul had no children.  I didn’t even have names to go with.  They reached out which is what led me to Karachi.  The book was then updated for the next edition in 2011. 

Matt:  We’re talking about events that took place more than 100 years ago and a lot of records were not retained.  Were there gaps in the narrative or lingering questions that you’d love to have known the answer to?

Shrabani:  There always are.  There’s no end to gaps you want to fill.  There was a big gap for a while when I didn’t have his diaries.  I felt I hadn’t heard his voice yet.  I picked up some from the Queen’s Hindustani journals but I wanted to know more about him, his childhood and his family life but there were no records of that.  All of that was covered when I read his journals.  Also, when I found his descendants, they were able to provide me with an oral history that had been passed down through the family. 

Matt:  It does have the appearance of a truth is stranger than fiction kind of tale.  In your opinion, what was it that created that first connection between Queen Victoria and Abdul?

Shrabani:  Queen Victoria was Empress of India and she loved the country.  She really wanted to travel there but she couldn’t because the distance was too far.  It would have taken 6 weeks by ship.  Her advisors also didn’t want her going there for political reasons.  So it was India that came to her in the form of Abdul Karim.  He was fresh from Agra and he was a young man who gave her unfiltered, uncensored stories from the streets of Agra.  He told her about the festivals, the people and the stalls.  He cooked her a curry.  She then wanted to learn Urdu and suddenly she was transported into another world.  She was getting to know India, speak the language, taste the food, and living out her role as the Empress of India. 

Matt:  It’s always tough taking a novel and condensing it into a 2 hour movie.  What are your thoughts on it?  Were you involved much during the filmmaking process?

Shrabani:  I was a consultant on the movie so we discussed the screenplay and Abdul’s character.  I did have some early concerns about how it would be portrayed on film but it was in the hands of a very good screenplay writer, Lee Hall.  I also helped research costumes and sets in my role as a consultant.  We found photos in the British Library and these were replicated for the film. 

Matt:  Judi Dench portrays Queen Victoria has someone who seems to have grown tired of her role of Queen but she still takes delight in using her power against those who have a different view of the world.  Is that the Queen Victoria that you’ve gotten to know through your research?

Shrabani:  Absolutely.  It was a process of discovery for me as well.  When I started out, Queen Victoria was a very formidable person dressed in black whose most famous line was “we are not amused”.  I then discovered a very different side to Queen Victoria through her journals and realised how passionate she was about India.  Through her letters, I could see how she fought her household, her family and the British Prime Minister in defence of the Indians.  Most of the Brits were very racist.  They used derogatory names for the Indians in their correspondence.  She fought hard against the racism and also the class snobbery.  She was a feisty old woman and it’s wonderful.  It makes her very endearing.

Matt:  Abdul Karim is such an interesting individual given his closeness and influence over the Queen.  Is his story particularly well known in India?

Shrabani:  Not at all.  Nobody knows anything about him.  I went to find his grave in Agra and nobody knew where he was buried.  It took us 3 days searching through the graveyards of Agra before we finally found it.  It was a desolate grave covered in rubble.  I told people that he was important and he was the closest confidant of Queen Victoria and nobody knew.  I felt his story had to be told.

Matt:  Do you know if the film has had a chance to screen anywhere in India yet and what sort of reaction it might have received?

Shrabani:  It is opening in Indian cinemas on October 6.  It’ll be in English so it’ll be shown mainly in Metropolitan cinemas where there are a lot of English speakers amongst the middle class.  There is a lot of interest in it.  The book was a best seller in India for several weeks so I think it’ll do very well.  Everyone is very excited.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  Are there any books we expect to see from you soon?

Shrabani:  I’m working on something that’s required several years of research.  It’s still ticking away and I’m sure you’ll hear about it when it comes out.

While in New York a few weeks back, I had a spare evening in which to see a Broadway show.  I had intended to see Hamilton (which everyone has been raving about for a year) but made a late switch and saw Dear Evan Hansen instead.  It won the Tony Award in 2017 for best new musical and was still showing with its original Broadway cast – headlined by Tony winners Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones.  The show was written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who also wrote the music for the film hit La La Land.

Getting a ticket wasn’t the cheapest assignment.  For shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, where there’s huge hype, you have to book months in advance.  Because my trip was impromptu, I went through a reseller’s website called Stubhub.  Instead of paying $95 USD, I paid $395 USD for a back row seat (the view was still fine).  The lesson is to book early but it does illustrate how popular the show was.  Also of note was the ticket pick-up process.  Stubhub actually has a newly fit-out store in Manhattan.  You walk in, go up to the desk, and the tickets are waiting in an envelope.  It’s simple and easy.

I love live theatre as much as I love cinema.  I have such respect for the actors who go on stage every night and deliver faultless performances in front of an audience.  It requires so much more rehearsal than the medium of cinema.  It a shame we get so few quality shows in Brisbane.  If I lived permanently in New York, I’d be spending a LOT of money on theatre tickets and trying to make a go of it as a theatre critic.

It’s hard to describe the show itself but suffice to say it was amazing.  It’s about a high school kid, Evan Hansen, who suffers from anxiety and has few friends.  When another teenager at school commits suicide, he finds himself caught up in an elaborate lie.  Through a series of mistimed events, the family of the deceased student thinks that Evan was their son’s best friend.  He goes along with the ruse so as to avoid confrontation and to not further upset the family.  Unfortunately, things escalate to a point where Evan finds the lies difficult to maintain.

It’s a heavy subject matter and the fact it’s framed as a musical gives it a “dark comedy” edge (which I love).  I can’t imagine anyone else but Ben Platt in the lead role (he’s crazy good) but I’d still love to see the show make it to Australia one day.  We waited 6 years for The Book of Mormon so hopefully it doesn’t take as long for Dear Evan Hansen.

The quality isn’t brilliant but you can watch a 4 minute clip of one of the best songs (performed at the Tony Awards) by clicking here -

As a side note, I loitered outside the theatre afterwards to get my playbill signed by Ben Platt.  It’s a nice memento and it’ll provide a lasting memory of an amazing theatrical experience.

Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen



Edgar Wright Interview

He’s been one of my favourite directors for some time and so I was thrilled to speak with Edgar Wright while in Australia for the premiere of his new film, Baby Driver.

Matt:  I was in New York City last week and saw it in a format known as 4DX.  It was the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like that with the moving chairs, blasts of air, lights coming on and off.  As a director, is that something you control?  Is there someone in a cinema adding all those effects?

Edgar:  I didn’t have anything to do with the 4DX thing but I’d love to try it actually.

Matt:  You’ve got a great reputation in the industry after films like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.  How easy is it finding the cast for a film like Baby Driver?  Are people like Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey lining up to work for you or does it take a bit of negotiation on your part?

Edgar:  I was really pleased that Kevin and Jamie responded well to the material.  I think it was partly because of me, partly because of the script and partly because it was all set to music.

Matt:  Tell us a little about Ansel Elgort.  I follow him on social media and he comes across as such an extrovert who shares so much about his life – the complete opposite of his character in this film.  What did you see in him and what did you think made him a perfect fit for this role?

Edgar:  I think that’s very much a generational thing.  Baby is a personality that is entirely different from Ansel because he’s introverted and does an accent.   What’s important is that Ansel has this confidence which is important for the role as Baby has to convince us that he’s the most badass getaway driver in the business.  While part of him is introverted and quiet, he has to be much stronger on a physical level with his actions speaking louder than his words.

Matt:  I think I read you’ve had an idea for a film like this for some time.  Is that true?

Edgar:  I’ve had the idea for years so it’s been a very long time.

Matt:  So how easy is it translating it from an idea in your head to a workable script on paper?

Edgar:  It wasn’t easy.  Because it’s such a visual film with the soundtrack being a big part of it, it was tricky to explain on paper what it was going to look and sound like. 

Matt:  I’m not saying anything new in remarking about the great use of music in the film.  It’s almost as if you started with the song and designed the scene around that.  Can you explain how you broadly picked the music and how early it was incorporated into the script?

Edgar:  The opening song inspired the idea 21 years ago.  With the songs, I’d listen to them and then write down what I wanted to happen in the scene.  Before I’d even written a word, I’d earmarked 8 or 9 of the songs.  It was an interesting process to let the music lead me.

Matt:  The film has been very well received so far.  It’s had some great reviews and is doing nicely at the US box-office.  What was it like in the week or so leading up to release?  As a director, do you know you’ve got something works or are you still nervous about what reactions await?

Edgar:  You’re always nervous about the commercial response.  I was getting anxious in the days leading up to release because I knew we had a great cast and then we got some great reviews.  You think “if this tanks then I really don’t what I’m going to do.”  It was a big relief to have it connect with audiences.

Matt:  The film has been very well received so far.  It’s had some great reviews and is doing nicely at the US box-office.  What was it like in the week or so leading up to release?  As a director, do you know you’ve got something works or are you still nervous about what reactions await?

Edgar:  They do but I’m superstitious about that stuff so I ask to be taken off those emails.  All I can do is make the movie to the best of my ability and then promote the movie tirelessly.  Beyond that, it’s not up to me.  You’re in the lap of the gods at some point.

Matt:  I’ve been following your journey across the world in promoting this film.  You’ve had Q&As with the likes of Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson and then you had dinner last night with George Miller.  What’s it like interacting with your peers in that way?  Do you learn a lot from each other, do you share ideas, or are you talking about anything else but movies?

Edgar:  George Miller is actually doing the Q&A tonight.  One of the nice things since Shaun of the Dead is the world getting smaller and being able to meet my heroes.  It’s extraordinary.  These are people who I have admired for years.  I was talking to George last night about my filmmaking process and the number of things we had in common was fascinating.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What are we going to see from you next?

Edgar:  That is a very good question.  I’ve been promoting this film since March.  I started trying to write something and I failed miserably because I’ve been doing endless interviews for Baby Driver.  At a certain point, I’m going to sleep for a month, resurface and then figure out the next thing.

Angourie Rice Interview

She’s one of the best young actors in Australia and I recently spoke with Angourie Rice about her performance in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled…

Matt:  You’ve already some big credits under your belt including Walking with Dinosaurs, The Nice Guys and Jasper Jones.  How do land a role this in The Beguiled?  Do they come looking for you or are you still going through a lengthy audition process?

Angourie:  Oh, I still had to audition.  I originally auditioned for the role of Amy but I was too old and I was so upset because I really wanted to be part of this film.  I then read for Jane and I was lucky enough to get cast.  Oona Laurence did a fantastic job as Amy.  She’s brilliant.

Matt:  You’re working here under the tutelage of a great director – Oscar-winner Sofia Coppola.  I realise you’re only 16 years old and so I’m curious about whether you knew a lot about her work going on?

Angourie:  I did actually.  My mum and I are huge fans of Sofia and I had seen all of her films except for The Virgin Suicides.  I love all of her work and I told my mum that I didn’t care if I was an extra in the background… I just wanted to be a part of this film.

Matt:  Clearly your focus is on your performance in the film but are you interested a lot in the filmmaking process?  Do you watch people like Sofia and try to learn a lot along the way?

Angourie:  Definitely.  It was interesting because they shot it on film.  That was a different process and you couldn’t watch the scenes back as soon as you shot them.  That was difficult to do.  You had to trust the performance and that the director liked it.  Her process is amazing.  She’s a very visual director and you can see from her other films how gorgeous all the shots are and how she sets it all up.

Matt:  This is a period piece film which I think is a first for you.  Is that right?

Angourie:  I did do Jasper Jones which was set in the 1960s.  Would you count that?

Matt:  Maybe I’m digging back a bit further but you’re right about Jasper Jones.  With all the 19th century costumes and ways of life, is there a lot you have to learn to play a character from that period?  Are there subtle things about the way you talk and walk?

Angourie:  Yeah.  We did lots of lessons with the whole cast which was heaps of fun.  We did dancing lessons, we did sowing and knitting lessons, and we did etiquette lessons.  We learned how to set the table property.  There was also a demonstration on how to sow a wound because Nicole has to do that in the film.  We had an historian/doctor to show her how to do it.  It was all fake but that was pretty cool.

Matt:  Are you doing all this during the shooting of the film or was there a lengthy rehearsal period?

Angourie:  That was part of rehearsals.

Matt:  And how did you find the costumes?  There a lot of preparation that goes into each day?

Angourie:  Definitely, yeah.  We had a lot of layers – singlet, corset, petticoat, dress, stockings, boots and sometimes an apron if you were working out in the garden to be practical.  It was hard to do everyday tasks like eating and walking… particularly walking up stairs.  It was worth it though.  It looks great on film.

Matt:  You’re working with some terrific actors here like Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell.  How exciting is it to be working alongside such Hollywood royalty?

Angourie:  It was fantastic.  All of the cast were so talented and brought something new to their character and to the project.  Each one had unique ideas as to what this film was going to be.  It was fantastic to see everyone work and to be on set.

Matt:  You’re in the early years of what we hope will be a long and successful career.  Do you get people giving you a lot of advice?  Trying to suggest what sort of work you should do and how to handle all the glitz and glamor that comes with Hollywood?

Angourie:  Yeah.  A lot of people tell me what films I have to watch as part of my preparation.  I guess a lot of the good advice comes from when I’m doing press tours.  I ask people how to cope with that because the publicity thing is far removed from acting and being on set.  I’m modelling and talking to people and doing interviews like this.  I’m always looking for advice on how to deal with that.

Matt:  You’ve had the chance to attend the Cannes Film Festival a couple of times now.  Is that right?

Angourie:  Three times actually.  I’ve been very lucky.

Matt:  How have you found those experiences?  Cannes seemingly becomes the epicentre of the film world for a week.

Angourie:  It’s so crazy.  It’s like everybody is there.  Every time you cross the street, it’s like a game of chicken between you and a limousine with tinted windows.  It’s insane and sparkly and unreal.  It’s like living in a Barbie world.  It’s surreal.

Matt:  With all of this acting, how do you keep up with your schooling?

Angourie:  With the support from my teachers and family.  I usually have a tutor on set and with technology, it’s a lot easier because I can email teachers and get work.  I still do the same tests and exams as everybody up.

Matt:  What have you got coming up?  What are you working on at the moment?  You’ve obvious got Spider-Man: Homecoming but is there anything else?

Angourie:  I’ll begin filming Every Day soon which is an MGM production directed by Michael Suscy.  It’s based on a young adult book.  I’m really excited about that and the shoot is taking place in Toronto.