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Truth Through Character: Riz Ahmed and Bassam Tariq on Mogul Mowgli

Riz Ahmed stars in Bassam Tariq's “Mogul Mowgli” as a Pakistani-British rapper named Zed, who is just about to make it big. He’s been working at this career for decades, starting with recording raps on tapes at his parent’s home back in London. But right when he’s about to embark on a tour, he becomes afflicted with an autoimmune disorder that weakens his body; it pits his inner non-stop flow of verse against his physical ability to stand up, and challenges his stubborn independence from his family who exist outside of his verses about identity. Zed's life-changing crossroads makes clear the various crises within him, about his life as a rapper, as the son of immigrants, as a talent who has to fight for his space against younger talents that claim him to be an influence. It's a character study that balances the lyrical and literal, with emotional stakes that become more and more claustrophobic. 

“Mogul Mowgli” is an incredible display of Ahmed’s many talents—he gives a full-bodied performance, whether it’s rapping to a sold-out crowd as if he were charging up to levitate, or in the character’s degenerative physical state, showing a precise arc of how someone could lose control of their muscles, and make a walk to the elevator into a distant dream. Ahmed shares co-writing duties with Tariq, who brings his own dreamy, intimate sensibilities that can be charted back to Tariq’s first film, “These Birds Walk” (a highly recommended documentary co-directed by Omar Mullick). While this film shares a little similarity with Ahmed’s drummer epic “Sound of Metal,” its rhapsodic filmmaking ensures that you’ve never seen Ahmed like this before. And given how “Mogul Mowgli” now marks Tariq’s last project before jumping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the upcoming Mahershala Ali vehicle “Blade,” it shows a an exciting creative on the brink of his own massive career.

RogerEbert.com spoke to Ahmed and Tariq about the making of the film, the influence that family had on the story, the filmmaking mentality Tariq will bring to "Blade," and more. 

One of many ideas that stood out about this film is that of family, of Zed kind if proving himself to his father especially. What was a moment in your own lives when you knew you had made it with your own family? 

BASSAM TARIQ: I feel it’s more similar to Zed where it’s more about inviting them into it, and not just waiting to arrive. Being like, “This is a messy and smelly process,” but allowing them into that. Being like, “I need you.” That was something that this film was teaching me, that I couldn’t do this alone. Or it’s not like I couldn’t wait to have this moment of success and then they’ll turn around. It’s got to be at the same time. 

What about for you, Riz? 

RIZ AHMED: It’s back and forth, isn’t it? On one hand, your parents never really stop worrying about you, I feel. I’m lucky to have very engaged parents. Also culturally there can be a lot of anxiety, and understandably, you know? You come to the country as immigrants, and you kind of sacrifice a lot of your own ambitions and your life for your kid to have some stability. So the kind of like, “Hey, did you hear what so-and-so did, he’s gone into property and he’s doing really well in Dubai!” That thing never really stops. 

BT: [laughs] 

RA: That never stops. But the thing that does happen more and more is that, yeah I guess as your work becomes more visible, I wouldn’t say there’s like a moment, but slowly they start feeling a bit more secure. Like, “Huh, I guess like maybe people do care about what he’s doing. And it seems to be going well.” I guess a turning point is when random aunties start calling. They loom large as specters in our communities, and so much of what is done and what is decided is about what random aunties might think or say. So, I think when random aunties start calling and say, “Hey ... your son!” that allows them to relax a bit more. That social proof, that validation. 

Do the random aunties have a favorite performance of yours? 

RA: I don’t think they’ve even seen any of the films. I think they’re just aware that people might be aware of them. But my parents, they’ve seen my work. That’s important to me. 

With that gaze of family, I think about the footage of you as a child in the film. I was wondering if you’ve always liked being on camera. 

RA: Listen, I take umbrage with you trying to shame the six-year-old me, and suggesting that six-year-old me and the present me might be frighteningly similar. [laughs] You can see in the footage there, I’m a kid, I’m like, “YO, point the camera at ME! ME! JUST ME! I’ll anything for you to look at ME!” Dangerous things going on in that kid’s mind, sadly to this day.

Going through that footage, what thoughts did you have about seeing yourself like that again? 

RA: You like to think that you build your personality over time through conscious choices. But actually I think, you look back at yourself, and also when you get older enough to start realizing how you’re mirroring your own father or your own mother—you realize that’s not the case. I think that’s a big part of what Zed realizes over the course of this story, is that we’re only masters of our fate in the margins. It’s that line in Hamlet: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends. Rough hew them how we will.” You can kind of get things to a ballpark, but the way things really turn out, the real nuances of who you are, what you do, how things go, that isn’t in your hands, that’s the kind of weird ... your life is a kind of ripple of pebbles you didn’t throw. It’s from someone else. And that’s a scary thought, but there can be some comfort in that as well, to realize you’re not the first to go around this obstacle course. Someone did it before you, and that muscle memory, for better and worse, is inside you. 

BT: Every time I’m with Riz now I’m always writing down these little nuggets of gold that he throws out. The only thing that I wanted to say throughout this thing, and that my real only agenda, is like when I got to know Riz, everywhere he went he always had a paper and pen and he was always writing stuff down. A little, lame-looking red book. 

RA: [laughs] 

BT: I realized that he saw the world through verse, and he’s a lyricist who happens to be a great actor, and that’s how a lot of the world knows him. But for me it’s important that we’re able to bring these lyrics to the forefront and allow him to perform that and bring that to life. For me to see that being unleashed is really something so exciting. We call it multi-hyphenates, multi-whatever, it’s just a part of being who we are. We come from a society of polymaths, of people who did multiple things and they did it really f**cking well. So for me, it’s exciting to be a part of that, to also show people that side of Riz. 

You guys both bring lyricism as storytellers to "Mogul Mowgli." Along with Riz writing the raps, what are both of you bringing to the script? Who did the dream sequences? 

RA: That is very Bassam, I’ve gotta say. If you’ve seen “Ghosts of Sugarland,” you’ll see this surreal, acid trip-visual style and storytelling that Bassam brings to something, which always elevates story and takes it in unexpected direction. He always finds both magic and humor and spirituality, all at once. So, that’s very Bassam. I mean, Bassam did the actual bulk of the actual sat-down writing, I’m kind of more of a, pace back and forth and rant kind of guy. 

BT: Every step of the way we were together, and that’s just the truth of it. I’m really honored. 

How much time did you have to shoot "Mogul Mowgli," and how did that impact how you prepared for it? 

BT: I had we think 21 days for shooting. But Riz and I had been working on this for a few years; in some ways we were rehearsing and understanding what the world is for a while. But then when those 20 days came, a lot was figured out on the day. There’d be days where I’m like, “This isn’t working,” or Riz would be like, “I don’t know maybe we need to find another way to do this,” and we were literally reworking things as fast as we could. And also Riz was on a crash diet, I’m not sure you guys can see it, but he was losing weight and we were filming chronologically. So literally the first scene that we filmed is his concert, and we knew we were going to end in the bathroom, but we didn’t know which shape it would take. And really a credit to Alyy Khan, who plays the father, and Riz, for just bringing it home and finding a really great way to end the film. And we didn’t even know if we got it when we filmed it, but I think our editor really brought it home. 

Did you do a lot of prep with Riz's physicality? I'm curious if that was more precise, or instinctual.

BT: We had Polly Bennett, who is this incredible movement director. I’ve always been very self-conscious with my own body, and always felt that like, the best of film, with like Denis Levant and people who are comfortable with their bodies, and understand ... I think Riz’s physicality was something that I wanted to push. And what’s funny is that so much of the film, he’s literally stuck in a bed, on a chair, this and that. So it’s like, “How do we keep this film active? How do we keep it moving?” That was something we thought a lot about. And also a lot of this stuff that’s happening in the film is close to our lives, the autoimmune illnesses. We were pulling from family members, from people that we know from our own lives, so I think that’s something worth noting. 

That helped you with making the larger context of this rapper’s story, with an existential crisis. 

BT: Yeah, it can be quite on-the-nose in a way, but it can also be very … it’s also a truth. This whole thing about epigenetics and inherent trauma, and we can pass down trauma if we don’t break the cycle ourselves and how do you confront trauma, and when you have space to confront things like that. So, there’s a lot of questions around that, that I think are really exciting for us to circle. 

I hadn’t realized this was your first narrative feature, I was curious—what excites you then about taking those sensibilities for "Blade," a much larger movie, compared to this and projects like “These Birds Walk”? 

BT: Look man, I think I just like to find truth through character. The reason why I love cinema is that it’s a team sport, it requires all of us working together to find a truth. So for me and with “Blade,” it’s like, I really love Mahershala. I really love Stacy Osei-Kuffour, the writer. I’m honored to be working with such incredible people. I can’t say anything more than that, I feel like Marvel has got snipers everywhere, it’s crazy, but I also respect the privacy. It’s really a dream, I’m a huge comic book nerd, and a kind of unbelievable thing as the whole pitching process was happening. Riz was very helpful and instrumental in the whole process too. Let’s see what we do, let’s see what we crack [laughs]. 

How was Riz helpful in particular? Did he give you any good advice? 

The thing with Riz is, anything I do now, and I think very similar to him, I run things by him. Even a pitch, or an idea. I was in LA visiting, I was shooting something out there, and I was telling him about this pitch. And I would tell him the shape of this, the shape of that. He wouldn’t just be like, “Ah, that’s cool,” he’d challenge it. That’s something I always know he is going to do. The same thing with the stuff that he’s working on now, that he’s writing, that I’m so excited about. We take passes on each other’s work, and I hope that I can keep that braintrust alive with him and our executive producer Yann Demange, who was very instrumental in bringing “Mogul Mowgli” together. I’d say at the end, when you’re at that last moment and have no idea what you have, he was the one who brought us altogether and made sure the film works. And now Jann and Riz I think are working on a new film together, which I think has been announced, “Exit West.” That’s exciting to see how they’re putting it together. 

It sounds like you guys initially met because you wanted to collaborate, and that you have a fruitful friendship now that’s very meaningful, creatively. 

BT: That’s the only way I know how to do it. Otherwise I don’t know what I’m doing [laughs]. I could just go play with my kids or go write something with my friends. That’s how I want to make to make sure that we’re able to take these next projects forward, whether they’re big tentpoles or not. It’s still people putting it together. 

"Mogul Mowgli" is now playing in select theaters. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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