This interview was originally published on the BFI YouTube Channel in May 2021
Our screening of Mogul Mowgli includes Riz Ahmed's Academy Award-winning short film 'The Long Goodbye' (2020)
More films in the Dissenters, Lovers and Ghosts: New British Cinema program
Elhum Shakerifa: Thank you so much for your film. I was incredibly moved by it, particularly for its portrayal of the real confusion and complexity of what it can mean to exist between cultures, and I really loved how generations were observed through the film. So from Zed and his parents, to his siblings and cousins, his fans and his peers. Zed's relationship with his father, of course, is a linchpin, and a very potent reflection on generational trauma, but also of British colonial amnesia, and I wondered whether you could reflect on that for us.
Riz Ahmed: We appreciate your question, because I think it does pick up on some of the layers in the film. It is, on one level, very much a kind of personal story, a family story, a story about our desire to live as individuals, and the inevitability of the realisation that we are all actually a link in a chain, and that chain is something that grounds us and anchors us and gifts us the heritage of Qawwali music and a sense of place and the sense of mission, and a community that you want to represent, but it also presents the curse of a certain kind of burden and inherited trauma and genetic and societal obstacles. Those kind of themes, I guess, all played out through these relationships, but you're right, in that they come together most centrally in the relationship with the father.
It's interesting you talk about this idea of amnesia, because yes, there is a kind of amnesia in Britain's story about itself and about, actually, who built Britain. There's this question that I'm often asked, and it inspired a spoken word piece in the film, of where you're from. It's at the moment where Zed is diagnosed with this illness, which is really an illness of self-identification. Auto-immunity is about the body not recognising itself, and therefore attacking itself. It's this internalised dislocation, this internalised, "Who am I?", that comes back to haunt him physically, and in that kind of way from rap, it kind of puts the question of, "Well, actually, who built this country?"
So when someone asked me where I'm from today, before I used to say I'm British Pakistani, when I was younger, I'd say Pakistani, then we said British Pakistani. Now I say British, and in saying British, I'm not discounting my Pakistani or Indian heritage. I'm saying that your idea of Britain needs to expand to stretch across the globe, because my ancestors built this country before ever having set foot here, and so there's an amnesia and a narrowness in Britain's idea of itself, but also in our idea of ourselves that we've internalised, and sometimes it's easier to have that amnesia, sometimes it's easier to have a narrower idea of yourself than such a sprawling, contradictory idea of yourself, one that bears both the scars and the spoils of empire. One that isn't simply black or white.
Alyy Khan, who plays the father, his character is actually holding onto the simplicity of having a narrower idea of his own story, one that actually discounts partition. So it's a collective amnesia. It's not just a British amnesia, it's an amnesia that makes it simpler for us to hold onto a clearer idea of who we are, whether that means we forget about partition, we forget about colonialism, or we forget about the good things at home, when we're just trying to run away from it and do better than what we came from.
Bassam Tariq: One thing that I wanted to say is that Riz and I, we did a lot of research when we were working on this film and trying to figure out what it is that we're trying to build, and I think it's important to kind of maybe even mention a few of these elders or people that have passed away that have been kind of important to our journey, and one is Saadat Hasan Manto, who is this writer in Pakistan who wrote a lot about partition. His stories are really sparse, they'll be only two pages long, but they'll have so much going on in them, and I think so much of how we filmed the movie kind of mirrors that, and he's talking about this amnesia as amnesia is actually happening.
The character of Toba Tek Singh actually comes from one of his short stories, and it's a reference and also homage to him. So I felt like for us, really leaning into where we... "Okay, what is our heritage? How did they, in the past, talk about these things?", because what we're going through isn't necessarily unique, and looking at stuff that we can use from our past traditions is actually kind of empowering, and seeing that we're actually standing on those shoulders and we're actually continuing this, as Riz had said earlier about this chain, and we're just this other link in a chain. So if we look back in that chain to see, "Okay, what is it that we can add and learn from as we kind of strengthen our own little piece of it?"
RA: I just want to add to that. So often, it always ends up to be that the journey that the filmmakers go on ends up mirroring the characters in the story, and just as Zed is kind of reckoning with his inheritance and his heritage and trying to reconnect with it, the good and the bad, make peace with it, realise that he's not just going to break as individual, that individualism is a mirage, that we are all connected for better and worse. That's something, I think, a journey that Bassam and I went on, firstly in connecting to these elders that you mentioned, whether it's Aziz Mian, the Qawwali singer, who's a big inspiration for me and a big inspiration for the Toba Tek Singh character, or Saadat Hasan Manto.
I remember a trip that we took to the Islamic art gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where we really just started kind of thinking about, "Actually, what is our artistic inheritance as Muslims in diaspora?" We often feel cut off from it, as though we're these kind of Mowglis, atomised Mowglis floating around behind enemy lines, disconnected from our inheritance, and really trying to borrow from that in terms of how we framed things, in terms of how we shot things. So we were connecting to that, but also in terms of passing on the relay, connecting to this incredible generation of new talent, actors like Nabhaan Rizwan. Multi-talented, he's a DJ, he's a rapper, he's an actor. Hussain Manawer, he's a spoken word artist, this is his first acting job. Anjana Vasan, who's a singer, songwriter, and actor. So in the same way that Zed was connecting to the past and the future and realising, "Oh, shit, I'm still linking this chain," I think Bassam and I really had that experience in making this film.
ES: For me, the film functioned very much like a mosaic or a miniature, very much inspired by that Eastern perspective, in which you can't behold the richness of something in one glance and you have to go back to it, and there are elements, for example, the reference to Toba Tek Singh, which aren't explained, and so there are some people who'll know, there are others who never will, there are some who'll find out and might go back, and so I wondered whether you could speak about the kind of intentionality of not explaining everything as well.
BT: It's a balance, it's really tough, because there's a question, and I think there's that line between mystery and confusion, and as a filmmaker, you want to make sure that it's mystery and it's not confusion, because I think at one point, you can lose the audience – the audience is like, "All right, I'm out of this". I think for us, as we were writing this, I remember Riz would always be like, "All right, no, but where are you right now? What are you feeling right now?", and I think when we were having that conversation, it was like, "Oh, I have to turn off this white gaze," because I think so much of the work that I've done in the past, it's always like, "Oh, what will somebody else say about this?", or, "Will they understand it?", but it's like, "Wait, am I understanding? What am I getting from it?"
So I think when we were able to kind of let that part of us go a little bit, or at least shut that voice off a little bit, I think we were able to kind of just lean in more into the material, and hopefully it goes into the area of mystery, and it's an exciting thing for us to kind of lean into, and it's less of this confusing space, but we know it's a dance.
RA: It's actually down to Bassam's bravery in not explaining a lot of this stuff, and in fact, a big part of this project was Bassam and I setting a challenge of, "What does brown cinema look like?" Arthur Jafar talks about black visual intonation, and Kahlil Joseph picks up on that idea, the idea that black cinema, African American cinema should borrow more from jazz than from kind of the white gaze of Hollywood, and we kind of asked ourselves, "Well, what does our cinema look like?", taking kind of the Mowgli-ised diasporic experience and setting that forth. So we had this shared palette and a shared mission, but we come at things often from such different points of view. I'm generally kind of like, "How do we make it crystal clear and really funny?", and Bassam is always like, "How do we bury it as much as possible and go for the heart?"
It's quite interesting, so hopefully there are a lot of Easter eggs there for people to pick up on, but I would say it's down to Bassam's boldness and bravery of, "No, I'm not going to explain this." This is in there. It'll function on an emotional level. If you want to go and then pick up on the Easter egg and go down the rabbit hole and see what all these references are, you'll find it. I was often nervous, actually, at times, going like... The Oxbridge critic in my head, the Guardian columnist who's turning their nose up at this in my head, is going to be confused, and there's all these internalised kind of barriers we put up against just free expression, and he kind of was quite punk about that, actually.
BT: I think something to also say is that this was a deep collaboration, and there were moments where I had to look at Riz to be like, "Okay, no, this is working," and I remember there's this moment when we were filming the [inaudible] scene, the first time we see Toba Tek Singh, it was in the mosque, and we actually filmed this movie chronologically just to kind of also get me... because coming from documentary, I was quite literal, and I think there were certain things that we wanted to do, and also, Riz was losing weight for the role, so we try to do things chronologically.
So the film's actually quite social-realist in the beginning, and then towards the middle, we start seeing a little bit of the weirdness. So the first time we filmed the weird scene, I see Toba Tek Singh, the character, for the first time show up to set, and we're filming this mosque scene and I make the mosque feel very real, and then this guy shows up, and I freak the fuck out, and then Riz takes me aside, he goes, "Hey, you're freaking me out right now. We're doing this." I'm like, "Yeah, yeah, we're doing this." I think this is something that Riz had said earlier, and this is really important, that this isn't a singular authorship, blah, blah, blah driven industry. The reason why we're all filmmakers and I'm not a fucking sculptor is because I need people to help find truth. We find truth through dispute. That's how I find it. That's how Riz finds it. So we have to work with each other to get there.
ES: So the film opens with Zed's really potent lyrics, and they circle back throughout the story and they gather resonance as well, but of course, Zed has to let go of his lyrics and accept that they'll find meaning or they'll find their place through someone else. Riz, I'd love for you to talk about the lyrics, which are your own as well, but also about the brilliant character of RPG. So referencing, also, what you were talking about generationally and responsibility.
RA: So the track at the start of the film is 'Mogambo', and Bassam shot the music video to that. We shot it together in Pakistan, in Lahore, and I guess it's, in a way, trying to set up kind of the stakes for Zed, as he sees it, in his art, that he feels he is representing kind of an endangered species of his people, but actually, his drive to represent is actually quite ego-driven, and he realises, as the film continues, that representing from this kind of place, a "me, me, me" kind of place, is limited and limiting, and will be limited in its impact, as opposed to kind of recognising you are this kind of link in a bigger chain.
But in terms of the RPG character, there's an idea at the heart of this film, which is about legacy. How, as artists, as humans, how do we kind of leave something behind? How do we cheat death? There's lots of different ways of doing that. One of those that's explored is about having kids and about carrying on your bloodline, and another one is about your art living on. The other one's about your success, making such an impact... All of those kind of threads are explored in the film.
Just thought it was really important to kind of have this character of RPG for multiple reasons. One is because he represents this next generation, his link in the chain, and will Zed be big enough to get past his ego and let go, so it's about the message, not the messenger, but also because it deals with this really toxic idea, there's only room for one of us. There's only room for one brown rapper, there's only room for one brown actor, and there's all this kind of stuff.
It's interesting, when we were thinking about how we cast this role, we were developing this film, and The Informer came on TV, which is BBC TV series that Nabhaan was in, and everyone was talking about it, "Hey, you've got to check out this show, you've got to check out this new kid," and I was really excited to check him out, but I also had a kind of strange shiver of, "Wow...", like deja vu, almost. I did a TV show called Brits in 2007 about, basically, a brown dude going undercover, an MI5 kind of thing, and now 10 years later, there was this kid who shares my name, in part, and kind of resembled me in some way, and I kind of saw myself in him, and there was this joy, but also this kind of recognition of, "Oh, I'm kind of going to age, and he's younger," and I thought, "Wow, we have to take this feeling. We have to run with it." So I said to Bassam, we've got to cast Nabhaan in this role of the guy who's going to replace me.
ES: So with that in mind, I wanted to reflect on the energy of the closing sequence. It felt both triumphant and also cathartic, with a real honesty around acknowledging generational trauma. Particularly in knowledge of your documentary background Bassam, I wondered whether you knew that this was where you were going, or did you find this to be your end point in the writing process in more of a documentary style?
BT: I think we always knew that the film was going to start with the concert on stage and end with something happening in the bathroom between the father and the son. The question of how it would look was always a big debate, and we weren't really sure what shape it was going to take, and actually, the way it was written was the father would just be outside the door, and they'd just be singing to each other, and we shot that, and it was so lame, and it was the last thing that we were filming. Remember this, Riz?
Riz and I, we had this weird moment where we turned everyone down. We're like, "Everyone just go away. We're running out of time," and then him and I are just sitting in this bathroom, I'm sitting on the toilet, I'm like, "What are we doing? What are we doing? We've got to make this sing," and then he's like, "Okay, I think I have an idea." So Riz then brought something that was so exciting where he goes, "Hey, baba, just come in," and then the dad just came in and they both started singing, and I think some people in the crew were like, "What the fuck? This is so weird." I was like, "This is perfect," and then I think when we finally found that, we were like, "We only have a few takes left. We've got to just do this." It was a huge risk that we took, I think, and then there were some questions even afterwards, like, "Do we film another ending?", blah, blah, blah, but I think that, to us, felt like it was the right place for it to end.
ES: So we are, of course, in the middle of a pandemic, in which illness, death and grief are very present and palpable, and whilst the autoimmune disease that Zed is struggling with, as you mentioned at the beginning, is essentially the body turning on itself, it also speaks to disproportionate violence towards black and brown bodies. There are structural elements about violence, but there's also the weight of trauma and muscle memory, and I wondered whether you could reflect on that and the resonance of your film with what's happening today.
RA: The idea of epigenetic trauma is something that we were kind of really interested in with this film, and certainly, it's actually kind of interesting when you kind of look at it like, what is the cause for these higher incidences in comorbidities and mortalities amongst black and brown people and people of color, indigenous people?
I guess, for us, it was more this metaphysical idea, this idea of internalised self hatred or rejecting ourselves. This autoimmune condition is the identity crisis played out on a molecular level. In terms of the pandemic and its connection to the film, obviously, we made the film a couple of years ago, so this is pre-COVID, but it does strike me that the arc of the film is one that we can all probably relate to in quite a profound way, in that Zed is this workaholic chasing worldly things, and he thinks that ambition and his job are absolutely fundamental, and then an unexpected health crisis puts him in a kind of state of lockdown, puts him in a kind of purgatory, which is the hospital, and it's in that hospital that he's forced to reflect on what really matters, which is your health and family.
I think that arc is basically everyone's arc across the pandemic, across this lockdown. So I think in a weird way, this film is kind of COVID film, even though it's not about that. I think many people will be able to relate to it on that level, and yeah, our hopes for the film is that it reaches a lot of different people and on a lot of different levels, as you said. I think in many ways, as a film, it's quite hard to put into any one box, just like Zed, just like Bassam and I, just like the complex identities that the film explores, and so our hope is that that is a strength for the film and that it kind of transcends the pigeonholes that our stories are often placed in.
ES: Wonderful. Well, here's to banning all boxes. It was really lovely to talk to you both, and thank you so much for sharing your film.