Riz Ahmed is bringing a personal story to the big screen with Mogul Mowgli, his debut feature as a writer.
“It's definitely very specific and personal as a story for me and [director/co-writer Bassam Tariq]," Ahmed told Yahoo Canada.
"What's been amazing is to see people of all backgrounds relating to these universal themes of family, and they can't live with them, can't live without them."
Mogul Mowgli is a powerful piece on multicultural identity crisis and intergenerational trauma, explored beautifully through music, art and the performances of a well-rounded South Asian cast.
The story follows Zed (Ahmed), an ambitious London-born Pakistani rapper, whose career is starting to take off in New York. His lyrics often dip into the racism and prejudice experienced by young British Pakistanis. On the account of his manager, he takes a trip home to England to visit his family that he hasn’t seen in years. No sooner that he returns home, he is struck with an autoimmune disease that leaves him unable to walk. But it’s less the physical ailment, but the internal identity crisis that he really has to wrestle with.
Playing a British-Pakistani rapper and performer is a role that’s a close reality for Ahmed.
“I didn't want it to be as close to me, but Bassam is very, very convincing," he said.
"He just said, 'No, it's got to be a rapper. And actually, why don't we use your music? And what would you do in this situation?' Bassam is from a documentary background so he likes to make things as real as possible. There's certainly a lot of both mine and Bassam’s experience, and experiences of people we know and love in this film."
Tariq explained that he and Ahmed took a trip to Pakistan and everywhere they went, the the movie's co-writer/lead actor was always taking notes.
"I realized that moment that he processed the world through poetry through lyrics," Tariq explained.
"So it just felt like if we were to work on this together, it's in our best interest to expand on that. And the way I see Riz, he's actually more of a writer and a poet, that just also happens to be a really excellent actor."
Ahmed, who goes by the moniker Riz MC in his real-life music career, uses slam poetry and rap to express Zed’s inner cultural turmoil.
"It's always been a place for me to kind of work through things really," he said.
"If I've got a knot in my stomach, I need to unpick or something I need to get off my chest and, putting it on the page and trying to impose that structure of rap and poetry helps me to work through stuff. So it's always from a personal place."
The impact of generational trauma
Zed’s relationship with his father in Mogul Mowgli is more fractured than ever. His autoimmune disease, a condition where the immune system attacks its own body, stems from epigenetic trauma. His family had suffered from the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan, which is interspersed in dream-like sequences throughout the film.
Tariq explained how the trauma carries through genetics.
“The psyche doesn't process things through time, the psyche doesn't know time," he said. "Then sometimes the psyche can also pass down traumas when they're not dealt with."
"There's a book, 'The Body Keeps the Score,' and so I worked closely with that and we did a lot of research. I think epigenetics is something that fascinates all of us, this idea of inherited trauma and how trauma can be passed from one family to the next, or at least one family member to another, unless it's confronted. So I think even the final scene of the film is kind of like an exorcism of some kind of a father and son together."
The responsibility of representation
Ahmed has been a strong champion for diversity and representation on-screen. He has long advocated for South Asians and Muslims to be represented in film. Bringing a British-Pakistani story to the big screen is a huge step forward and he’s only getting started.
“I think it is something that I was super aware of when I was starting out, there's not a lot of us out there and we have a responsibility, we've got to do this and do that," he said. "Then quickly you realize you can't please everyone, like everyone's going to be annoyed with you about something."
"Some people are like, ‘You’re not religious enough,’ some people are like, ‘Go back to where you came from!’ And now I think I'm in a place where I'm not really interested in representing anyone, I'm interested in presenting myself. Actually the boldest thing you can do is not fly a flag for others or put on a mask people want you to, one way or another, but to take the mask off.”
Ahmed and Tariq bring an honest, unflinching portrayal of what it’s like to belong to two different worlds, a struggle that many who come from different diasporas will relate to. Ahmed certainly related to that and it can be seen in his vulnerable performance as Zed, which cements this role as one of his best yet.
Mogul Mowgli releases in theatres Sept. 3