Riz Ahmed Wants to Transform Islam's Depiction in Hollywood

"This film is so personal that I almost cringe at the idea that anyone is watching"
Riz Ahmed Wants to Transform Islam's Depiction in Hollywood
"I want to stretch myself, and I want to stretch culture."

That's Riz Ahmed's mantra when it comes to his work and artistry. And with his latest film, which he co-wrote with director Bassam Tariq, he certainly fulfills this.

Mogul Mowgli gives us something we don't often see in Western films: a story told from the perspective of a Muslim that has nothing to do with terrorism. Ahmed and Tariq were determined to show Islam in a way that not only left stereotypes at the door, but showed the beauty of their religion and heritage.

"Bassam and I took a trip along with our executive producer, Yann Demange, through the Islamic art collection at the Met museum in New York City," Ahmed tells Exclaim! "And we just said, 'What does brown visual intonation look like? What does neo-Muslim cinema look like?' If you were to get into a time machine in your head and think about what a visual language might be, what a palette might be. [Ours is] rich with colour, sounds, layers, references. Bassam wanted to create a film visually, and in terms of style and editing rhythm, that reflected that."

The result is a truly personal piece for Ahmed and Tariq, who both incorporated aspects of their upbringing into Mogul Mowgli, a film about a British-Pakistani rapper, Zed, who is suddenly struck with an autoimmune disease. Most interesting is the use of religious imagery through hallucinations and dream sequences that seem to haunt and oppress Zed.

"So much of my early faith and experience of being Muslim was a reaction to 9/11. It was very much so stuck in a gaze of what other people would think of our faith," recalls Tariq. "For a long period of my life, I had these talking points down about what it meant to be Muslim in America. I'd have them ready [like] a walking pamphlet. And that's what my faith was. As I got older, I realized how disingenuous that was for me and for the faith, and so I had to start learning."

This growth from being defensive and almost embarrassed by his faith greatly influenced the tone and style Tariq created for Mogul Mowgli, a film about confronting faith and accepting who we are and who we want to be. "I feel like Bassam unashamedly, unabashedly wanted to find a cinematic language for this story that could contain our experience within it, or could attempt to," Ahmed explains. "And that meant our experience as a hybrid one. It doesn't fit easily into one box or another so he created a film that's horror, comedy, melodrama, magical realist [and] musical."

To create such a deeply personal film required a great deal of trust and comfort between Ahmed and Tariq. The two were introduced by mutual friends and, prior to filming, took a trip together to Pakistan, deepening the bonds between the two. And it's clear that Ahmed doesn't take for granted how necessary it was for the two of them to trust one another implicitly. "This film is so personal that I almost cringe at the idea that anyone is watching," he says. "People say the best work is what you're proud of. That's not true. Probably the truest work that you make is the stuff that you feel naked sharing. And so you've got to feel safe [with] who you're naked around. That's what Bassam did. He made me feel safe and then he made me naked. He invited me to go to a very vulnerable place in this film and he did that by leading by example."

Mogul Mowgli may turn out to be a key waypoint in Ahmed's career in particular. Following his success in blockbusters like Rogue One and Venom, the personal nature of Mogul Mowgli feels like an artist coming into his own with a well-rounded view of Hollywood and his place in it.

"On some level, you want to prove to yourself that you can play in the big leagues and you're hungry for that validation of the bright lights and the big stage," Ahmed reflects. "And of course, when you do all that you realize that the Wizard of Oz is a dude on a unicycle behind a curtain, and actually, you're looking for validation from others when you need to go within as an artist."

It's exciting to see where this next phase of Ahmed's career takes him. And for Tariq, he's just getting started. Mogul Mowgli is his first narrative film, and he's been tapped to direct the reboot of Blade with Mahershala Ali. But this most likely won't be the last time we see Ahmed and Tariq team up. The two have built a personal and professional relationship based on such mutual respect and admiration, we will likely see more of their artistic creations in the future.