Riz Ahmed on Mogul Mowgli and the 'life and death' matter of Muslim representation
In a Q interview, the Oscar-nominated actor explains why his new film is his most personal yet
While Riz Ahmed has built an impressively varied acting resumé, shifting from a role in the Star Wars blockbuster Rogue One to a starring turn in the critically acclaimed Oscar winner Sound of Metal, it's his new film, Mogul Mowgli, which he found to be most daunting in some ways.
"You do a project like this, you tell a story that's as personal as this — you do feel kind of vulnerable and exposed," he told host Tom Power in an interview on CBC Radio's Q. "You feel like people have read your diary or something."
Mogul Mowgli is about a New York-based British Pakistani rapper named Zed who's on the verge of his big break. Before his international tour begins, he visits his family in London, where he's confronted not just by them and the culture he left behind, but by a degenerative autoimmune disease that threatens his life and career. The film was co-written by Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq.
WATCH | Riz Ahmed's full interview with Tom Power:
For Ahmed — who's also known as a rapper by the name of Riz MC — Zed's story very much rhymes with his own, so much so that he said it almost makes him cringe that people are watching it on screen. The film is only semi-autobiographical, but it draws on his and his co-writer's experiences as it explores multicultural identity and intergenerational trauma (although Ahmed said his relationship with his parents is a lot better than his character's).
[It's] an identity crisis played out on a molecular level.- Riz Ahmed
"So much of this film is about that push and pull," said Ahmed. "Your roots are the thing that grew you, inspired you, and yet they're always in danger of pulling you back into the dirt, you know? So there is that tug of war between Zed and his inheritance."
The actor noted that the theme of inheritance — the cultural traditions, expectations and genetic code passed down to us from our ancestors — looms large in the film. Even the autoimmune disease Zed develops can be understood as "an identity crisis played out on a molecular level."
"Your body doesn't recognize itself, [you] don't accept yourself, so it's attacking itself," he explained.
Going beyond autofiction and autobiography, Mogul Mowgli is infused with magical realism to help it reach its truth. In one surreal dream sequence, an adult Zed wakes up in his childhood Quran class where the teacher starts fighting him in a kind of mud wrestling match. Throughout the film, a figure in a floral sehra — a traditional wedding veil that obscures the groom's face — floats through Zed's subconscious and stalks his thoughts.
"I remember [Bassam and I] walked around the Islamic art collection at the Met Museum in New York and said, 'How can we draw from this heritage and create a visual language that's as hybrid as our experience, that's as infused with spirituality and magical realism as our experience?'" said Ahmed. "He really found that language."
WATCH | Official trailer for Mogul Mogwli:
Muslim representation as 'a matter of life and death'
As the first Muslim actor to be nominated for the best actor Oscar, Ahmed has become one of the leading advocates for Muslim representation in Hollywood. He said his "dubious accolade" came with mixed emotions.
"I thought, that's well awesome," he recalled. "But then I thought, oh, that's ridiculous and weird. Muslims are a quarter of the world's population … but I feel like there's only a handful [of us in Hollywood], and it's weird. I feel like we're still invisible."
The perceptions that we create in our culture legitimize discriminatory laws, they fuel hate crimes [and] they sanction the invasion of foreign countries.- Riz Ahmed
In June, a report titled Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies, was published by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative with support from Ahmed. "You can't change anything until you measure it," he said. "So being able to measure it was powerful."
The study revealed that out of 200 top-grossing films released between 2017 and 2019, Muslim characters only accounted for 1.6 per cent of speaking roles. Nearly one-third (32.8 per cent) of Muslim characters were portrayed as perpetrators of violence and more than half (53.7 per cent) were targets of violence.
Even films lauded for their representation, such as Marvel's Black Panther, have blind spots, according to the actor. "I stepped away from it and I realized, hang on a minute, Muslims are only in that movie for one moment," he said. "And it's to kidnap school girls as terrorists."
Pointing out that these issues are about more than entertainment, Ahmed emphasized that representation (or lack of it) has a serious real world impact.
"This is a matter of life and death," he told Power. "You know, the perceptions that we create in our culture legitimize discriminatory laws, they fuel hate crimes [and] they sanction the invasion of foreign countries…. Lives are at stake and dreams are left unfulfilled and awesome stories aren't being told that we'd all enjoy."
Despite the bleak statistics, Ahmed thinks "people in the industry" generally recognize the need for more diversity and have been supportive of making lasting changes.
"A couple of visible examples of Muslim success is not what we're after," he said. "We need new structures in place. We need new execs, decision makers, but we also need a talent pipeline."
Listen to the full conversation with Riz Ahmed near the top of this page.
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Produced by Mitch Pollock.