Many of us, especially young Muslims of Colour in my generation, regardless of where we find ourselves geographically, have been following British actor Riz Ahmed’s journey from the time of its inception. Be it through his controversial music, his activism, or his films, he has had some kind of impact on our generation for the simple fact that we don’t always have the pleasure of seeing ourselves on screen. From the first time I had experienced Riz on screen to the present day, I have to admit, his acting career has significantly catapulted. As of late, however, things have shifted slightly. Perhaps the beginning to a career of a lot more personal-inspired work. We are here for it. Aside from the fact that many hearts were left shattered recently after the news reached the world that the longstanding bachelor has finally been hitched (supposedly meeting his wife in a coffee shop). We were also gifted with some new and refreshing releases, his new Album The Long Goodbye as well as his short film of the same title and two feature films. I have to say though his oeuvre of creative work has been an enriching experience for many of us who have consistently followed his journey. From The Road to Guantanamo the all -time comedic FAV Four Lions, to his supporting role in the thrilling Nightcrawler or his step into center fame (or frame?) for his leads in Trishna and the Night Of.
(We simply have removed from our memories his cameo in Girls- we forgive you Paul-Louis)
Even though I have seen Riz in a variety of roles, I am always left with the question: Who is Rizwan? As an actor, I never really had a tangible sense of who he was and what kind of work he had aspired to make, until recently that is. During the lockdown, I went on a Riz Ahmed splurge in terms of his music, his interviews (these are a must) and his roles in his latest two films The Sound of Metal by Darius Marder and Tariq’s Bassam’s Mogul Mowgli. It is important to mention that anyone wanting to watch Mogul Mowgli should first watch The Long Goodbye, because I believe that his performances in both of these films are in conversation with each other. What I had found really translated in these works was a sense of Rizwan as an auteur, a maturing performer and filmmaker and an actor with immense artistic potential, the kind of potential he has not yet completely unearthed in my opinion. I connected to all the possibilities of vulnerability, rawness and guts that I had always felt Rizwan possessed as a character but somehow, never quite fully got a sense of, until Mogul Mowgli.
I cannot comment on Mowgul Mowgli without commenting on his short The Long Goodbye. It is almost considered a prologue to the feature Mogul Mowgli. The short is a heartbreaking re-imagining of Britain as a racist or fascist reality. The film begins with a family in the wake of what appears as a “normal” afternoon. Riz, who goes by his name Rizwan, is playing games with his younger brother, his father is running around in between wanting to watch the local news or his mum wanting to move a chair that Riz carries upstairs where the younger women are chatting about an upcoming wedding, doing henna. Things take a strong and cosmically-violent turn when the family’s street are raided by the fascists who are now in control, executing people of colour. I will not say what happens next because what happens next was absolutely terrifying to witness – but not a reality we are unfamiliar with. The film ends with a powerful poem “Where are you from?”
Who knows there’s no place like home and that stretches us […]
Born under a sun that you made too hot for us
Kidnapped by empire and diaspora fostered us […]
I’m Mowgli from the Jungle book, I’m John Barnes in the box [..]
My tribe is a quest to a land that was lost to us
And its name is dignity
So where I’m from is not your problem, bruv
The gun-wrenching short film is in direct reference to the feature Mogul Mowgli, was co-written by Rizwan and Bassam in their attempt to create a story that was personal, relevant and important to both of them. The film follows the story of Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper, living in New York, who returns home to London to visit his family. Here he discovers that he has a rare autoimmune disease which defined by Rizwan is a disease where the body quite literally eats itself from the inside out. This film is a multilayered cinematic masterpiece and nothing short of cinematic “newness”. It is a built-up amalgamation of Bassam and Rizwan’s experiences growing up. It weaves together generations of ancestral trauma, religion, heritage, ethnicity, classism, notions of home and belonging down to the intimate relationship between a father and a son- a narrative of legacy and profound humanness.
Mogul Mowglli operates as a film text that speaks to a number of references. Very briefly, its title is suggestive of the Moghul/Mogul empire of Muslim dynasty of Turkic- Mongul origin that ruled a dominating part of India from the 16th to mid 18th Century. One of the attempts of the dynasty was its intent on integration between the Hindus and the Muslims into a united Indian State. The film itself politically comments on the traumatic and blood-shedding partition of “British” India between the two rivalry states at the time, Pakistan and India. This partition resulted in almost 20 million people being displaced and the large-scale violence had resulted in much blood-shed, civil war and an ongoing tension between India and Pakistan, some would argue, even today. According to Bassam the personal is political and in an interview with the London Film Festival he made mention that “some people would walk up to me and remark this it is a deeply political film and I’m like really? I thought it’s a father and son film.” (2020)
An important and integral point to keep in mind is, that indeed, for those of us POC filmmakers, creating work from and within our communities, the personal is always political and this film strongly highlighted that for me. The second part of the title suggests the familiar and kindred fable of The Jungle Book, where the adventures of Mowgli, the cub-boy is set in the forest of India, where one of the major themes in the story is that of abandonment and home. Even though the title is not suggestive of the narrative arc, in many ways- it is.
The film opens up on Riz as a rapper, where throughout the film, his music from his newest album The Long Goodbye becomes a part of his journey. The famous lyrics are heard, “people ask you where you’re from, the question seems simple but the answer’s kinda long.”
Zed’s music forms a foundational motif in the film which is in conversation with the enticing and performative figure, that follows or rather haunts ZED throughout the film “Toba Tek Singh” one of the characters from a short story written by Saadat Hasan Manto, published in 1995 which follows the story of inmates in an asylum for the mentally “ill” in Lahore, where many of the patients were admitted post the partition and in many ways refence the relationship between Pakistan and India once more. For many though, who understand the figure’s role in relation to Zed, it becomes an ancestral nightmare of sorts. The character of Toba Tek Singh is in reference to Qawwali music, to childhood, to Eastern storytelling and to everything that Zed possibly wants to escape from. But he cannot and does not find himself escaping the generational or ancestral trauma that will always be carried with him and in some way, it becomes an illness that almost consumes him from the inside. The character of Toba Tek Sing will linger in your mind and heart for a while after the film is seen, it surely did for me. The film plays on much of “what we carry” as immigrants or first generation of Asians living in a predominantly white country, or any country that has experienced the weight of colonialism and displacement on its bruised-backs. Even in South Africa, we can strongly relate to this inter-generational experience as many of our ancestors were brought by the British from India as slave migrants or traders. The figure is a haunting but also a constant reminder of deeper notions of displacement. More than this, this film being an Eastern film text is important to mention as Rizwan mentions in a QnA with MIFF, in conversation with Kate Fitzpatrick, that the film is actually rooted in ideas of dreams, myth, circularity or eastern folklore. The film is basically an (in my opinion quite successful) attempt at recreating a cinematic language that Rizwan describes as playing and creating new cinematic tones and form – which is born out of the personal story.
The film is deeply political yes, but at its core and heart, it is a film about masculinity and vulnerability. Zed has to sit with himself once he realizes that this disease is eating him alive. It is in this “third space” of illness and the body in a degenerative state, that he and his body becomes something else, something that it cannot itself recognize in the beginning and Zed begins to lean on his father for physical and emotional support. How do we sit with ourselves in our states of vulnerability and ask the difficult questions like where we belong? Where do we come from or what is home? Where do we hold our trauma?
All of these questions come to light in significantly challenging and painful ways. I think this “thing” is addressed in this film that I think is quite important for the Asian or POC communities alike. This “thing” about Asian men and their relationship to their fathers. Now it seems like a simple question: What thing?
(The question seems simple, but the answer is kinda long.)
But it is this complexity of manhood and masculinity and also- having to leave one’s country and live in another to provide for a family- that sits at in the roots of our guts, in the anxieties of our bellies and the sorrows of our hearts. It presents itself as ego, resentment, guilt, shame, love, religiosity and control. These structures of masculinity fall apart and Zed is forced to connect to this man- this man that you might never have really known or the man that you have run away from- this man is all the men before you, in their exhausted attempts to survive the harsh truths of colonialism and slavery in the silences of their homes.
On home, Rizwan comments, “home is the source to your power and your pain. In this film those two things are deeply entwined and often you know our scars kind of make their own little map for us in terms of a way forward but also a way home and I guess for Zed going home also means going backwards even through time to the origin of this ancestral trauma around partition.” (at MIFF)
This idea of home is explored in such a holistic, spiritual, raw and culturally needed way in this film. It is made for us, for the sons and daughters of oppressed ancestors, who walk with blood and angst in the unknown lands. This is Rizwan’s best and most authentic film, because it shows us who he is and what he feels and thinks. It is a film about home and what that means for us, especially for the Asian-Muslim community in European countries. This film is about language, desire, family, lust, trauma and culture. It is about the body and its raw ability to comment on the idea of self-hate or self-destruction. It addresses this idea, this cosmic idea that the body does not know itself as a product of decolonial-trauma is gruesome and gut-wrenching to sit with throughout the film. By the end of it- this film that is, this illness that Zed begins to live with or have deeper existential dialogue with is the “thing” – that living, breathing, parasitical, dying trauma that is able to exercise power over us, as a displaced people, does not and will not win in the face of love and healing homes, and that runs even deeper than history itself.