Ahead of the UK premiere of Bassam Tariq’s first full-length feature film, Strand sat down with Tariq to chat about about identity, culture and belongingness, themes explored in Mogul Mowgli (2020).
The film co-written by Tariq and Riz Ahmed follows the journey of an up and coming rapper, Zed (Riz Ahmed), who is set to go on his biggest tour yet. On his visit back home, he is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when his leg refuses to move at will. Hospitalised to treat his deteriorating condition, Zed navigates his relationship with his father and the idea of home.
Credit: BFI London Film Festival, Image.net
I absolutely love the film, I’ve been going nuts about it for a bit.
Oh, thank you so much, that means so much, that really means so much.
I wanted to talk to you about Hasan Manto's influence in your film. We see his short story Toba Tek Singh through imagery and sound, I wanted to know if this idea of Zedd having an autoimmune disease was somehow mirroring Bishan Singh’s story?
Oh wow, I hadn’t thought about it that way but that’s a great way to look at it. Manto has been a huge influence in our lives and I think even the way we filmed the movie. The very sparseness of the visuals, all of it is really us coming to Manto. In a way, it's like a homage to him and his way of storytelling. But even if you look at like Persian couplets, you look at ghazals and you know Hindi and Urdu ghazals, it's like they are very small, very succinct but there is so much going on, they're very packed. So we wanted to kind of use that language in filmmaking as well almost making a Mughal miniature, where its quite flat and quite bold in what it's saying. We could be flashy I've made flashier films but there was a desire to make things quite bare.
Talking about the sound and the soundtrack, the film features works from Riz’s album The Long Goodbye, were the songs woven into the script or was it the starting point for your writing process?
The funny thing is I think that while we were in the edit Riz developed the album The Long Goodbye, he always talked about this idea of this album and this idea of a Britain breakup album. But for me, I was more interested in the father-son kind of exploration of things. It was exciting to see he was starting to build in tandem this album, his first self-titled release. For us, as we were working, it all kind of informed each other. It's very hard to know where one started and the other began. Him and I are very close, we have been friends for quite a while. We just wanted to figure out a way to really speak to one another, through music and playlists that was a kind of way to learn how we all think and learn from each other.
What was the starting point for this script? It deals with so much- post-partition trauma, identity, traditions- where did you start in terms of the writing process?
We started with a lot of different ideas but we always started coming back to this question of belonging and how we felt like we never had a place. We’ve been friends before Trump got elected but when Trump got elected it made us question ‘where the hell are we going?’, then Brexit happened, it was all super weird. Its all these things happening at once, “everyone wants their country back”. It's kind of like, where the hell are we in this, the lines that you drew are the things that drew us out of that area so we don’t really know where we sit anymore. It was that feeling that we had, but I knew for me that wasn’t enough for film. It needs to be a universal thing that I can connect to. Being a young father and stuff, I have 2 boys, I wanted to do something that dealt with fatherhood as well. To me, It was quite important, just where I was in my own life.
Credit: BFI London Film Festival, Image.net
While writing did you see any similarities and differences between your experience and Riz’s experience, between the American and British diaspora experience?
I think there are massive differences. The socio-economic differences, generally the people in America are well to do versus those in Britain who have had generations of really challenging struggles and resistance movements. They came for different reasons. A lot of us here (in America) came on student visas, were balling it up and were very close to the white experience. For me it was very different, I grew up in Queens, working-class, because of that I actually related more to the British-Asian experience. Even like my closest friends all of them are British-Asian. My first documentary was a collaboration with somebody that's literally from Wembley as well, his name is Omar Malik, he was the one that introduced me to Riz.
You visited UK quite a bit when you were writing the script, was there any unlearning/learning while you were tracing this idea of belonging?
Massively. I think the hard thing about London is its spread out, you can’t grasp it, you can't just be like this is where all the Pakistanis live, it's not like that. Everyone is living on top of each other in such a beautiful way. You walk into mile end it’s a Sylethi Bangladeshi vibe there, but it’s a specific kind of Sylethi Bangladeshi vibe. Then you go to Shoreditch, you know what I mean? It's like all these areas of different pockets of people and power structures are different. The council estates are different, the power in the council means something. I think it also deals with migration patterns, when you came and how you came, the Mirpuris, I think trying to dissect that and understand who stays in London why do they stay in London, and those that end up leaving London where do they go – they go to Essex, they go to the Midlands, go to the burbs. Understanding all that, just trying to see what that looks like- What keeps somebody in Wembley? Why does somebody stay in Wembley? Why does somebody stay in a council flat? All these questions were things that I was constantly asking and learning and unlearning. So much of it requires you to shut up and listen.
What was the research process like? Was it going to Wembley, going to Brick Lane and meeting people, meeting with Riz’s family?
Riz’s family was instrumental in all of this but it was important that I stepped out of Riz’s family. Being in New York, it's just like London, it’s a hub where different people from different countries are constantly coming. I had so many friends who lived in London, grew up in London and they connected me to people and communities- so I was able to really do a lot of my research. Even though there is nothing to do with the Midlands in the film, it was really important for me to go to Birmingham and spend two days there, getting to know people literally doing interviews. I lived in Walthamstow for about a week and then after that I lived in Shoreditch, I lived in Hammersmith- I was trying to find my rhythm to try and understand these different communities how they were working with one another, it's fascinating- East and West London are completely different.
Were there any real-life inspirations for the characters or were they an amalgamation of personalities and ideas you wanted to portray?
I would say the character that I am really excited about is the character of Bilal, but I feel like there are so many ways to dissect this film. All the film is like a series of conversations that Riz and I are having, we’re debating something and we’re coming at it in different ways. For example, the rude boy scene where the guy handed the spliff and he got it from the left hand. It’s inspired from a moment where I once left the mosque with my friend and there was a woman that was asking for money and my friend gave the money with his left hand and I was like ‘Dude how could you do that you should always give money with your right hand’, and he looks at me ‘Dude I just did a good deed and the first thing you're gonna do is...’, I was like how messed up am I in my head that like, you know what I mean? I always knew I wanted to include something like that. But in a lot of ways I'm very much like Bilal in my life, the cousin. People jokingly call me a bit of a 'Fundo' but like I'm always about our hands and how soft they are and all these weird things because I feel like we are losing this tradition that we are a part of.
Mogul Mowgli is now streaming on the BFI Player. Stream now.
Edited by Andriani Scordellis. Film Editor