Bassam Tariq’s electrifying feature debut Mogul Mowgli, co-written by star Riz Ahmed, explores the South Asian diasporic experience through the story of Zed, a Pakistani-British rapper whose health deteriorates, forcing him to confront the generational trauma haunting his family.
It feels like a very personal story for Ahmed, with a title taken from his track “Half Moghul Half Mowgli“, littered with snippets of home videos, insights into his North London upbringing and grime MC roots, as well as music from his latest album “The Long Goodbye” featuring heavily – but Tariq says they built the project together “from the ground up.”
“Riz and I took a trip to Pakistan, we shot a music video together there, and it was a really good experiment to know that we do really want to work together. We looked at a lot of our favourite Indian films, we both grew up with Bollywood, we both grew up with so much of this that informed who we are that we were like, man, let’s just go disco. Let’s get fun. Let’s get a bit weird. Let’s get lo fi with things.”
Though they share Pakistani heritage, Ahmed and Tariq grew up on different sides of the Atlantic, so were there cultural differences to overcome too? “I’m from Queens, I’m a working class kid,” says Tariq. “So the way we grew up, it’s very similar. I had dinner with his family – they’re just like my parents. We’re cut from the same cloth. But the experience of being in London… when you walk on the ground there, there’s a level of confidence, knowing that like two or three or four generations of Asians before us have walked these streets, and their blood is there, their sweat is there and their hard work, you can feel it in the air. So there’s like a confidence and a swagger that you have being there.
“And there was oppression and a lot of difficulties that y’all dealt with. There was resistance, political movements, there were labour movements that y’all were active in – I mean you can just go on and on about the Southall Black Sisters, the Bengali Workers Association, right? There’s so much going on. So for me it’s like, I have to shut up and listen to that, right? I have to quiet my own self and be like, Okay, I have a lot to learn here.”
The track central to the narrative and the ghostly figure that haunts it share a name with both a small village in Pakistan, and a short story from renowned Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto: “Toba Tek Singh”, that sees the trauma of Partition manifest in the ramblings of a mad man stuck in no man’s land. Nandita Das’ searing 2018 biopic Manto brought both the author and his works back to the forefront of post-colonial thought, but what other cultural touchstones were drawn upon for Mogul Mowgli?
“Riz is obsessed with Mughal miniatures,” says Tariq. “I was never a fan, but we went to we went to this gallery exhibit together in the Met. They have this Islamic cultural exhibit, so we sat with one of the main curators and it was really amazing to see what miniatures can mean. We saw people in Lahore working on miniatures, and we realised there’s a way that we can really film this, bringing that miniature idea alive a little bit. There’s something obviously contrived within miniature, so we thought, maybe we can go a bit flat and keep things bare bones similar to that.
“Imran Qureshi is another artist that we’ve looked at his work’s phenomenal. He’s done like a very modern take on Mughal miniatures. What else? We looked at a lot of Rumi. I’ve read Rumi a lot. I feel like he’s become this weird sweet candy confectionery type thing, but the reality is that he was like this hugely influential poet. They are these great new translations of his work coming out. The Conference of the Birds is this Persian Sufi poem that we looked at too.”
The film has a dreamlike quality to it, with jarring hallucinations interrupting the realism while spiritual wounds manifest themselves physically. “Coming from documentary the last thing I want to do is do social realism,” says Tariq. “I feel like I get social realism really well. And for me, documentary does it better. It’s like, I could just watch a documentary of this – why do I need to watch a film of it?
“The funny thing is, we didn’t have trouble getting the film funded. The hard part we had was getting the tone right, because we’re juggling a lot here. You’ve got a family drama, and then you’ve got a musical element, and then you’ve got this body horror thing that’s happening, and then it’s this weird thriller around the idea of ‘Who’s this dude that’s behind the curtain?’
“I think the reason why it’s so maddening is because there isn’t a roadmap for us in the diaspora to do this. When they want us to do this stuff, it’s either usually comedy, or it’s like, [exaggerated accent] ‘oh, Dad, you’re so uncool, Dad, I want to leave here. I’m going off to college.’ There’s no canon as my wife says, for us to draw upon when telling our own stories. There’s no plan right now for this work, so we’re trying to build that now.
“The thing is, there is stuff that’s already been made, and we’re just not looking at it because it’s not in front of our faces. I’ll look at Harmony Korine and I’ll look at Tarkovskiy and I’ll look at all the cool hipster white dudes, but but what I’m not looking at is like, maybe that Tunisian dude (Nacer Khemir) that made Bab’Aziz, because his film never went to Cannes, so why am I gonna care about him? Right? Because he premiered at Moroccan International Film Festival? There’s great work out there, and the problem is that because it doesn’t reach certain gatekeepers, we’re kept away from it.”
Exploring the painful history of Partition was personal for some cast members. “They all come from this as well, like the actors who played Zed’s parents: Sudha Bhuchar‘s got relatives that went through it, Alyy Khan does. The guy that plays Gulab Mian (Jeff Mirza) – Toba Tek Singh – like his mother came on the Partition train, his father did. These stories are just with us. Even one of our extras that that was in the compartment during partition scene, she was having memories of when she was a child coming on the train, so she had to stop filming. So it was just like, Whoa, okay, this is very real.
“One thing that we also did in the partition train was that we didn’t want to show who the perpetrators were. We wanted to leave it open, because it’s not about, this side did it to that side or that side did it to this side – it was done because of a larger thing, and we all turned on each other, because it goes on both sides. So for us it wasn’t about who did what, it was more about what happened.”
Did building the intergenerational relationships in the film push Tariq to connect more with his own family? “Well,” he says, “I still haven’t watched the film with my parents, I’m so afraid to because I literally made a version of my mom and my dad. But they’re gonna watch it soon…so it’s weird. It feels like so much of who I try to be is- I try to run away from who I am. But man, I can’t deny it. I got the nose of my dad, I got the lips of my dad, I got the jawline of my mom, you know what I mean? I got the big thighs of my mom. And, like, that’s just who I am, but I feel like I’ve been trying to run away from it. But man, it’s staring right at me now that I have young kids. They look like me, they look like my dad, and I can’t run away from that.”
On the female characters in the film, Tariq says, “I think my biggest failing, when I see the film is that I say to myself, I wish the mother had a larger role. And we had Kiran Sonia Sawar, who we cast as Zed’s cousin that’s like, ‘ah, I’m on my period’ – she’s so good. We also had Anjana Vasan who we cast it as Vaseem, who we love, love, love so much. She’s such a juggernaut of an actor. But we had this little budget and we had this idea, so we thought, let’s just get our toes in. We can’t do everything at once, so let’s just do this one part of it really well. But there’s such a talent of South Asians in London.”
Line of Duty star Aiysha Hart plays Zed’s girlfriend Bina, and it’s unusual in itself to see South Asians on screen dating people from their own communities, when creatives like Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani and Mindy Kaling consistently create work with South Asian protagonists chasing white love interests. Was that choice a conscious one? “My wife is Pakistani,” says Tariq, “and I love the idea of us exploring the reality of us actually being together. I think generally, most most of us actually end up marrying in our own cultures. And that has its own set of challenges, but I feel like that’s what I want to explore. I’ve seen the other side of it so many times that I’m so bored of it, and I want to try to do something that’s a bit different – it just needs to feel real and honest to where we are.
“It was the question of like, what kind of brown did we want to make it, you know?”
Mogul Mowgli will be screening as part of the 64th BFI London Film Festival on the 10th October, and on general release in the UK and Ireland from 30th October