British star and US director Bassam Tariq have together produced a film of rare and sumptuous riches that will reverberate for many years to come…
By Suman Bhuchar
ONE OF THE UNDOUBTED highlights of the London Film Festival (LFF) is ‘Mogul Mowgli’- the debut feature by writer/actor, Riz Ahmed and director, Bassam Tariq.
Their first collaborative effort had its World Premiere in the Panorama Section at the 70th Berlin Film Festival (February 20-March 1), and won the Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique (FIPRESCI), the international film critics association award.
Ahmed called ‘Mogul Mowgli’ an, “unapologetically brown film unapologetically bold in its creative vision”.
The friendship between Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed comes from a place of mutual artistic admiration and has grown over the years since they met.
Both had come across each other’s work and in their own words they talk about their creative journey and the politics behind what inspired this film.
Tariq is an American Pakistani writer and director who was born in Karachi but now lives between New York and Texas.
He studied advertising at the University of Austin (Texas), and worked as a copywriter. His first feature, a documentary in 2013, ‘These Birds Walk’, (see below for link) was recently named as one of the 50 ‘Best foreign films of the 21st Century’ by The New Yorker.
Tariq is a TED Fellow and was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s ‘25 New Faces of Independent Film’. His documentary, ‘Ghosts of Sugarland’ (2019) won the short film Jury Prize at Sundance.
Ahmed is an actor, producer, rapper and activist. Born and brought up in London, Ahmed graduated in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from Oxford University and began his acting career in ‘The Road to Guantanamo’ (2006).
Since then his credits include HBO’s ‘The Night Of’ (2016) for which he won an Emmy (Outstanding Lead Actor in a limited series), ‘Shifty’ (2008), ‘Four Lions’ (2010), ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ (a film directed by Mira Nair 2012), ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (2016) , Jacques Audiard’s ‘The Sisters Brothers’ (2018) and more recently Sony/Marvel’s ‘Venom’.
The two have co-written ‘Mogul Mowgli’ while Ahmed stars in the film as the lead character, a rapper called ‘Zed’, who on the cusp of international fame is struck down with a mystery illness, while Tariq directs this feature debut.
Zed (‘Zaheer’) comes across as a selfish, self-centred man obsessed with his music until he is forced to reassess his life.
Ostensibly, the story is about him, but the bigger canvas is about whether artists of colour can bring their whole self and culture to the room and what are the sacrifices and responsibilities they have to contend with in making art?
All these questions are subtly explored in this film.
www.asianculturevulture.com spent some time with these two talented individuals listening to their world view and how it informs this film…
Question (Q*): How did you two meet?
Riz Ahmed (RA): I was filming ‘The Night of’ in New York, he (Tariq) had just directed a film with Omar Mullick called ‘These Birds Walk’ (a documentary about street children in Pakistan and the work of humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi), which I thought was incredible and Omar put us in touch.
We struck up a friendship and often talked about our creative journeys. I think neither of us have met too many other people from such similar backgrounds who are interested in the same things or doing the same things in film, in storytelling, so we’d often be talking about our journey as artists and the contradiction of trying to make art that at once represents your people – but the making of that art often distances you from them and leaves you in a kind of no man’s land; which is even more compounded when your work and the content of your work exists in a no man’s land – neither belonging to East or West. We’d go down these roads talking about this stuff. It was out of those conversations that this story as you can see kind of grew, because it very much deals with those themes.
Bassam Tariq (BT): I was a fan of his (Riz Ahmed’s) music before we actually met and for years I’d listen to his rap Post 9/11 Blues which is really quite cheeky.
We did a little research trip to Pakistan together and I saw him collaborating with other artists.
I wrote it in my journal – this has to be an artists’ journey where we explore the arc of it all as it happens through music in some capacity.
It’s also exciting to see this journey that Zed takes and also how it informs Riz as a person as well.
Q: ‘Zed’ is a very selfish character?
RA: Whenever I play a character I try not to judge them. I think there is something selfish about the artist’s life, in that you can put that first, before friends and family.
One of the things that happens to this character is that he defines his self-worth through ambition and ideas of leaving behind a creative legacy.
This illness forces him to reassess that and say: ‘Am I enough without the possibility of a legacy? Without the possibilities of fulfilling my creative ambition? Am I not just as I am, is my family enough, the place I come from enough?’ So, perhaps there is a kind of imbalanced emphasis in this person’s life towards the artists’ legacy, without really recognising their personal inheritance.
BT: Artists of colour sacrifice a lot and say ‘we’re doing this for our family. We’re doing this for our community.’ Actually, you need to do it for yourself. That was something we were also interested to talk about as regards an artists’ journey.
RA: I really believe the role of art is to hold a mirror to our society and reflect the times we are living in. I think the act of making art in itself is a hopeful act. The film is from a personal place and we want it to be seen as art before activism. It was like we’ve put a lot of both of ourselves into this film. It’s a very personal film, hopefully you can feel that. It’s wearing its heart on its sleeve so in a way it really felt like very natural to put as much of ourselves as we could. There is nothing cynical about this film.
Q: Tell us about your experiences of growing up in two different backgrounds from US and the UK?
RA: Our experience of growing up as part of the South Asian or Muslim Diaspora is so varied even in any one given country, super varied. I would say often there is maybe a generalisation made in the US, that the South Asian experience of immigration and children of immigrants is a more middle class one – just because of some of the restrictions placed by the US government on migration applicants in the 1970s and 1980s– whereas in the UK it’s a bit more of a working class one, but having said that – both Bassam and I – our background was both really quite similar in terms of class and then culture.
I think what this film is kind of dealing with more specifically is the articulation of the creative voice and a cultural voice, the articulation of a certain mongrel identity within popular culture.
That is the journey that this character is on, and that is the endeavour behind the film itself.
In those terms, I think there has been an interesting passing of the baton between the US and the UK back and forth, because the UK, I would almost characterise it as the Harlem of the Brown Diaspora and some artists have been fundamental in articulating the voice of the brown Diaspora globally, such as when you look at Tamasha Theatre Company, if you look at the BBC comedy sketch programme, ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, if you look at ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ (Gurinder Chadha), if you look at musicians, Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh.
But, I think particularly post 9/11 where you had a kind of fracturing of the brown voice in Muslim Europe and a retreat of our voice from pop culture into fear and the protection of religiosity.
The US kind of picked up that baton and you have artists like Bassam, artists like Aziz Ansari and Rami Yusuf and Mo Amer and Hasan Minhaj and I’d like to think that maybe now there is a gentle titling of the pendulum back towards the UK and we’re showcasing some of that talent in that film.
BT: What I’d also say about London because there has also been a longer history of South Asians there – and it is something to be proud of – when I went there I wondered if I’d ever be welcomed.
And it really does feel like Harlem – what Harlem was for black people, I mean from the 1920s and 1960s, it’s kind of like that.
I felt it’s a safe space to make mistakes and people allow you to make those mistakes – for me, I also look for permission from my community to make mistakes.
It’s a weird thing to see people with love be like ‘do it, do what you have to’. I think that was really exciting.
Q: I feel the film is also about the fragility of Asian masculinity, is it fair to ask?
RA: It’s something we spent a lot of time kind of discussing actually. We made a music video together for my track, ‘Mogambo’ (for the album, ‘The Long Goodbye’ -see link below) which kind of explores this. In our research trip to Pakistan we found these folk wrestlers (pehlwan) and they’d be engaged in this hyper masculine activity that was also at once vaguely homo-erotic in its rituals and it’s these fraternal love affairs, peer rituals and these floral thongs that they’d wear while they were wrestling and that was juxtaposed in the video with the Khwaja serai or Hijra community, transgender community which is highly prominent in Pakistan, much more prominent than you’ll see in any European city or society.
And there is a kind of exploration of femininity through masculinity as well, so I think that our culture is a kind of non-binary culture.
The biggest binary or the only binary in our culture is public-private.
And what you do in public is kind of highly regulated and what you do in private, people don’t really try and categorise it.
For better and for worse, I’d say categories like homosexual or gay and lesbian – they haven’t really meant a lot in our part of the world. Non-binary in terms of gender as well – third gender and transgender communities have been publicly recognised and are part of official documentation in our community for decades, so that’s the cultural thing.
Obviously, the illness is about him accepting his vulnerability and his fragility. His Dad and he share that inability to accept their fragility.
Q:Why did you want to use Rap music in this film?
RA: The interesting idea was using rap music as kind of collage, a kind of Russian doll effect as we are drawing parallels between Rap music as an African American art form – the kind of form of resistance that was concocted in the Diaspora way to find dignity through the cause of suffering and draw parallels between that and Qawwali music which is the 12th century North Indian and Pakistani devotional music style that the character ‘Toba Tek Singh’* is engaging in.
And that is really interesting for me because I have always been cognisant of that fact that I am creating music in a black art form and want to be a net contributor to that rather than taking from it, excavating from that culture, so I have always tried to add cultural layers, textures, experiences, lyrics that also contribute something fresh to hip-hop culture.
But in that journey of trying to find things just to sample like Qawwali music, I actually realised there is this whole other template under which I could be creating, which is Qawwali singers really — they sing, they do spoken word and they kind of rap as well.
If you listen to Aziz Mian, Sabri Brothers they are rapping in double time. (And he proceeds to demonstrate at great speed). It’s like ok, they do that. And kind of reconnecting to that is what this character is doing without having to look elsewhere, without having to look to America, without having to look to hip hop, without having to look to a tour, just me at home on the toilet seat rapping to my dad. Maybe that’s enough, you know. Maybe I am complete in that moment.
Some of the songs in the film are songs I have written and a lot of them are released on an album, ‘The Long Goodbye’ which is a break up album of being dumped by Britain.
Q: Finally, is there any message you have for us?
RA: We’re really proud to present to the world this unapologetically brown film — unapologetically bold in its creative vision, telling its story in a way you’re not used to the stories being told and presenting a cast of actors that for many people around the world will be new faces and we’re so proud to have multi-talented young cast and a more established cast: Nabhaan Rizwan amazing young actor (BBC ‘Informer’ 2018), also a rapper and DJ; Anjana Vasan, an amazing theatre actor, who has just come off the stage in ‘Chekov’ (and was nominated for best actress role in last year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards for her role in Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’), and a singer-songwriter; Hussain Manawer, a rising star and spoken word artist; Sudha Bhuchar who founded Tamasha Theatre Company, a cornerstone for British Asian art; we’ve got Alyy Khan, a national treasure of Pakistan, so, me presenting that talent, that diversity to the world is a hopeful act.
What I am most excited about in this film is the incredible new swathe of talent we are presenting to the world with Bassam kind of leading that charge.
Q* – Suman Bhuchar was part of a group of journalists who discussed the film with the filmmakers at a press roundtable shortly after the World Premiere at the 70th Berlinale this year…
‘Mogul Mowgli’ screens at the 64th BFI London Film Festival from Saturday (October 10) and has screenings also on Tuesday (October 13), all at the BFI Southbank, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XT; The Barbican; and other participating cinemas nationally.
The film is also available to view on BFI i-player from Saturday (October 10)- Tuesday (October 13).
For all London Film Festival listings and booking, see: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff/Online/default.asp
The Long Goodbye
• ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) about inmates from a Lahore asylum, some of whom are due to be transferred to India after Partition. It is a satire and the title is the name of a town.