“It’s Almost Like They’re Having This Identity Crisis On A Molecular Level.” In Conversation with MOGUL MOWGLI Writer-Director Bassam Tariq

As soon Riz Ahmed takes the stage at the start of Mogul Mowgli, you know you’re about to see something special. From this moment it is clear that this will be a film with energy and bite, and that plugs into the supercharged power of its star. Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper who is about to embark on the biggest tour of his life. Just before said tour, however, Zed is struck down with an autoimmune disease that leaves him struggling to walk. What follows is a fascinating, often surreal, meditation on the South Asian diaspora.

Using songs from Ahmed‘s own album The Long Goodbye, Mogul Mowgli has been touted as a very personal project for the actor, who also co-writes here. It is not, however, just Riz Ahmed‘s film. This is quite firmly a collaboration between Ahmed and writer, documentarian and TED fellow Bassam Tariq. As easy as it may be to pin the film down as a semi-autobiographical work from Ahmed, this would be to ignore the influence that director and co-writer Tariq has had on the project. Aesthetically ambitious, playing with hallucinations and long musical stretches, Mogul Mowgli has the mark of a filmmaker putting his own stamp on the material.

Here, Tariq talks to Film Inquiry about his time working with Riz Ahmed, his own experiences of diaspora, and his creative approach to film.

“It's Almost Like They're Having This Identity Crisis On A Molecular Level.” In Conversation with MOGUL MOWGLI Writer-Director Bassam Tariq
source: BFI Distribution

Andrew Young for Film Inquiry: This is a collaboration between you and Riz Ahmed. Who approached who first, and how did the film become what it is today?

Bassam Tariq: The project is really something he and I have been working on in a lot of different ways. We’ve always wanted to work together and never really knew how to do it. I think we threw a bunch of ideas at the wall, and then we realised that we were kind of hiding behind tropes and ideas and we should just be more ourselves as much as we can be. That’s why we decided to take the masks off and do something as real, and as connected to ourselves and our experiences, as we can. So the character of Zed is literally an amalgamation of he and I.
It’s interesting you say that, because it is very tempting to see Zed as a version of Riz, and this as very much as his story. Does telling someone else’s story affect your job as a director? Or was it different here because you were putting some of yourself into it?
Bassam Tariq: Yeah, I think that’s the only way anyone can do it. At least that’s the only way I know how to direct. Coming from documentary, I very much believe that the documentarian or the filmmaker is involved in the making of the story, and can’t deny their own intervention in the frame. So the question is: how do you really intervene? Being invisible is a choice, and being very actively present is a choice. So I think being very clear about your intention is important.
With this film was it a case of being invisible or of being more actively present?
Bassam Tariq: It was a little bit of both, I would say. I think definitely in the writing, there’s so much of my parents in this. But then it’s set in London and Zed’s a rapper, and it’s Riz’s incredible lyrical qualities and sensibilities that drive the film. I would never want to deny that. It’s so exciting to see that, and I think that is the bedrock of the film, and it helped us figure out how we were going to bring this to life cinematically. So it was really in honour of the performance, and that was how I was trying to move the film and build the space for these wonderful, incredible actors.
“It's Almost Like They're Having This Identity Crisis On A Molecular Level.” In Conversation with MOGUL MOWGLI Writer-Director Bassam Tariq
source: BFI Distribution
The film is about the South Asian diaspora, specifically with a character in London. You and Riz have spent most of your lives in the US and UK respectively. How did that affect the film, having differing experiences of the diaspora?
Bassam Tariq: It’s funny because the British-Asian experience is very different from the American migration of South Asians. I think generally there’s more upward mobility here [the States], people came on college student visas and ended up staying as engineers, but the funny thing is that my parents came here as working-class people living in Queens. The funny thing is that when you look at Queens, New York it’s very similar to Wembley [where Ahmed and Zed are both from]. So our experiences were very much aligned. It was really for me to bring in my own life and throw it into Wembley, and it was quite cool to see how it translated in some way.
The film is about identity and belonging but it’s also about chronic illness. Why do these two stories fit together? Why not one or the other?
Bassam Tariq: They fit well because we can’t separate our bodies from our migrations. I feel like migration patterns and this intergenerational migration that’s been happening has actually taken a toll on our bodies. There’s been a lot of scientific studies on this thing called epigenetics, with this idea of intergenerational trauma, where trauma from maybe three or four generations ago is maybe still in your DNA.
It’s at the cutting edge of science, it’s something that people are talking about, but it’s also a crazy thing and it’s something that we didn’t want to talk about in the film because it felt like we were hitting it over the head. Basically, there’s this idea, and studies show it, that people who migrate have higher numbers of autoimmune disorders. Especially people that come from hot lands moving to cold areas; their bodies are having a hard time adapting. So it’s almost like they’re having this identity crisis on a molecular level, and we felt that was a really interesting way to talk about this.
Another thing is that spiritually speaking, when you’re ill in like Sufism it’s seen as a form of purification and it’s like a veil is being lifted. So the idea is that as Zed is ill and getting more and more ill, actually more of these veils are being lifted and he’s hallucinating more about these different experiences.
“It's Almost Like They're Having This Identity Crisis On A Molecular Level.” In Conversation with MOGUL MOWGLI Writer-Director Bassam Tariq
source: BFI Distribution
There are some quite striking directorial choices here. First, there’s the surreal, hallucinatory elements of the film, and secondly, there’s the music, which is not just peppered in there but is allowed to play out and really propel the story. What was the thinking behind those two creative decisions?
Bassam Tariq: Yeah man, it’s wild because it’s a really difficult thing to work out how to balance all of those elements, and I think of it as a dance. That’s the part of the film that really excites me; when it’s really ambitious and it works, and then also when it doesn’t. I think that to me is really exciting, because it’s exciting to fail forward. Because if you’re not trying things and not making mistakes, then what are we doing? What is the cinematic experiment?
This is still a new language. Paintings have been around for I don’t know how many millennia; writing has been around for so long; film has only been around for less than a hundred years. It’s still so new. We’re still in its infancy relatively, compared to other art forms, and we’ve already come to ideas about its form, ideas of what a story is, and the three-act structure blah-blah-blah. I think we’re losing the excitement of what the cinematic form is, and it really is in those mistakes, in those trip-ups where I think the excitement exists.
It’s in the messiness of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, in the messiness of Leos Carax’s Boys Meets Girl. It’s in those films where things get messy and exciting that we’re starting to contribute something exciting and new to the cinematic language. If that’s what we’re doing then we’re going somewhere new and exciting, and it’s worth it. It’s worth messing up. It’s worth getting a star taken off your review.
Film Inquiry would like to thank Bassam Tariq for taking the time to speak with us! 
Mogul Mowgli uses the musical talents of its star to tell a story about the South Asian diaspora. What other films discuss diaspora in an interesting and meaningful way? Let us know in the comments!
Mogul Mowgli will be released in theaters in the United Kingdom on October 30, 2020.

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