LFF 2020: Mogul Mowgli Interview
Updated: Oct 13
Director Bassam Tariq speaks about his collaborative feature film co-written with Riz Ahmed
Written by Katherine McLaughlin
“Lyrically I think so much of the film is driven by Riz Ahmed and I had to really surrender to that”, explains writer-director Bassam Tariq. “I also knew there was an element of textural quality of the music needing to sound different from [Ahmed’s album] The Long Goodbye.
The words ‘Toba Tek Singh’ are repeated like a powerful spell in Tariq’s potent debut fictional feature which he co-wrote with British actor and musician Riz Ahmed. A Punjab region in Pakistan, Toba Tek Singh is also the title of Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1955 short story: a satirical take on India/Pakistan relations following partition, and a song featured on star and co-writer Riz Ahmed’s aforementioned album. The film utilises that historical division and a stalled career as a way to explore a British Pakistani rapper’s fragmented psychological state in the modern day as he attempts to make sense of his place in the world.
"We always knew the film would end with this kind of chanting and the ‘Toba Tek Singh’ character took on this other life. Really, there was this idea of musically letting go, and how that passes through you, because the film is so much about what you pass on to others.”
Just as he’s about to be granted his big break - an opening slot on tour with a big star - Zed (Ahmed) heads home to visit his family in London. Soon after arrival he is diagnosed with a degenerative autoimmune disease leaving him wheelchair bound and in a state of anxiety. Part psychological horror, part satire and part drama about the diaspora identity, Zed literally and figuratively begins to crack apart as he is forced to confront his past in service of his future. Family relationships, career choices, intergenerational trauma (his father is close-lipped about his experience of partition), art, music and religion are all scrutinized and examined with style and wit.
“The character of Zed is really an amalgamation of Riz and I in terms of our anxieties and the way we see we are and where we want to go”, says Tariq. “There’s a general fear and hesitation of there can only be one and we feel like there’s an expiration date on our coolness and to what we can bring to art. I feel like I’ve only got this one hot minute to pop something out, otherwise I’m fucked!”
When I tell Tariq that my South Asian family are generally quiet on Partition and that period in history, he responds saying, “It’s crazy how our families will never really talk about Partition, right?”
“In the film, I was like, should they have a conversation about it? And we were like, no! That would never happen! It wouldn’t happen in this short time frame. It may happen several years from now… The way we have to talk about it is by not talking about it. The way they get a bit crazy together in the bathroom at the end, that becomes the way they are processing this trauma together.”
“Riz and I talked a lot about Partition and how it affected our own families. I think everyone has a Partition story but it’s quite sad that the documentation of Partition isn’t as great as it should be. People are working towards that documentation; there’s the 1947 Project and a few other things out there that are really trying hard to build something, and I think it’s exciting to see where it goes.”
Tariq’s previous work has included a selection of shorts, music videos and documentaries including, Netflix’s Ghosts of Sugarland which dealt with a close group of Muslim friends based in the USA coming to terms with the actions of a friend. Masculinity and the male body are huge motifs in Mogul Mowgli and something Tariq is excited to further explore in his films.
“I’m very insecure about my own body so I’ve always found body movement to be fascinating. I realised that in every work I do there’s some element of the male body on display in some capacity in a way that is challenging our toxic masculinity. That to me is something that’s quite crucial to a lot of my work.”
“I try to understand why I’m so fascinated by it and maybe it has a lot to do with our upbringing…really even with Bollywood and how women and men are both depicted in it. In the past the men were these big, chubby dudes and they’re in their fifties playing college guys! But the women had to be very young and perfect.”
“When I look at the old Dilip Kumar films there’s this element of how free and loose he is. He may be normal looking; with a normal body shape but the way he moves is very effeminate in an exciting way. That’s the kind of stuff I’m excited to explore more and more.”
Mogul Mowgli is showing at the London Film Festival and will be released theatrically on 30th October in the UK.