Actor, activist, writer and MC Riz Ahmed takes on many guises to bring this personal passion project to the screen and explores the importance of cultural heritage versus the identity of self.
“Half moghul half mowgli. Raised like a concrete jungli. And a junglist and a Londonist. But my DNA wonder where my home should be
So opens the lyrics to the song ‘Half Moghul Half Mowgli‘ by the Swet Shop Boys, the transatlantic trio in which British actor Riz Ahmed moonlights as rapper Riz MC. Showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival, ‘Mogul Mowgli‘ takes its name from this 2016 track and explores the central theme of identity through the life and rhymes of a man unsure of who he is, or where he belongs. US-based artist Zed (Ahmed) is set to depart on a European tour that will catapult him to the big time. But a long-overdue visit home to see his family triggers further fractions between his heritage and his British-born self but also a debilitating illness that will change his future.
For the descendants of immigrants brought up in a land and culture different from those of their parents the conflict between the old and the new, traditions and modernity is a constant state that we learn to navigate almost reflexively. The conflict between our own identity and that of our heritage, the theme at the heart of Mogul Mowgli is a well-worn path for us second and third-generation immigrants. We can shift from patois, Hindi, or Urdu into the Queen’s English quicker than any UN translator. Stretched between a home many of us may never have visited and the country where we chose to call home, we are left in a kind of no man’s land, neither one nor the other.
Within the film, Zed’s return home forces him to confront who he is. But who is he? Is he his parent’s son or is he his own self-defined man? Is he British or is he Pakistani? Can he be seen as British if his skin tone isn’t white? On stage, Zed performs the track ‘Where You From?’ – found on Ahmed’s 2020 break-up with Britain album, ‘The Long Goodbye’ – and spits, ‘Your question’s just limiting, it’s based on appearances.’ With the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the shattering after-effects George Floyd’s murder and Covid’s lockdown we’ve had to return to our homes and during this time reflect on our own identities. How we define ourselves and how others define us. As Black and people of colour, our racial identity and personal identity are intertwined.
Especially through the lens of the media, we have been defined by a collective, rather than individual identity. As tropes and stereotypes in a short-hand, one-size-fits-all characterisation of what being black is. The ‘angry black man’, the ‘neck-twisting sassy best friend’, the maid, the criminal, the terrorist, the slave. When we leave our home, we leave with the burden that we are representing not just our individual self, but our entire race, religion, and/or culture. We feel the responsibility to code-switch and shape-shift to try and negate those labels, to make them feel more comfortable with our otherness.
But the constant burden to present the individual self, a race, and nationality must leave some kind of physical or emotional toll on the self? In Mogul Mowgli Zed is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease; unable to identify its own cells Zed’s body has begun to attack itself. Undergoing treatment Zed hallucinates from the powerful effect of the therapy and encounters an apparition who warns, “They drew a line in the sand…them and us…I am the sickness from this separation.”
British-born Pakistani Riz Ahmed brings his personal experiences to the fore in bringing this passion project to the screen. As co-writer and producer, he has carved out space and platform on which to tell a multi-layered story populated with nuanced characters that those of the diaspora will recognise.
The importance of seeing our own experiences, triumphs, and struggles projected back at us authentically has never been more important. Particularly the Black British experience. From Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and Chewing Gum to the upcoming Small Axe – Steve McQueen series of films. While we share similar struggles to African Americans our history and perspective are not homogenous. To define our own identity and how others see us we need to use our voices in the arts and beyond if we are to ensure we are heard and seen as our true selves.
As Riz Ahmed explains in a recent interview with the BFI, “What we’re trying to do with this film – and I hope what we continue to do as we find and create our projects – is articulate our own language cinematically, drawing on all those influences and traditions…and try to bind them into something that has its own voice.”
By Sam Ellington – @thisisthelife_x
Mogul Mowgli comes to the UK October 30th, check your local cinema for bookings.
Watch the BFI London Film Festival Screen Talk with Riz Ahmed Sunday 11 October 2020 18:30 BST