Fresh from an award winning reception at Berlin earlier this year, director Bassam Tariq’s debut feature Mogul Mowgli arrives at this year’s London Film Festival, the event that he regards as his film’s the acid test. In his own words, “this is where it either works or it doesn’t.”
Co-written by Tariq and its lead actor, Riz Ahmed, it spotlights rapper Zed whose ambition to make it big has taken him across The Pond and, at last, his big breakthrough has arrived. A world tour beckons, but beforehand he pays a visit to his family in London. It’s then that his life hits a brick wall: diagnosed with an auto-immune condition, his dreams and ambitions are disappearing before his yes and he’s a shadow of his former self. And his parents can’t agree on the right treatment for him.
Talking to The People’s Movies’ Freda Cooper, Tariq describes why he and Ahmed decided to work on the project together, as well as considering the reasons why auto-immune conditions affect immigrant communities. And he reflects on how the Mogul Mowgli is essentially about the search for home and identity and the way the past can affect the present – and the future.
Freda Cooper Congratulations on the film. It’s your first feature, so I wondered how you felt about it going down so well in Berlin and about it being at the London Film Festival now.
Bassam Tariq We’re very lucky. We’re very blessed. It went down really well in Berlin and it’s an incredible place: the industry was there and we were really honoured with the reception that we got there, but now it’s a case of what are the people here going to think? And this is where it’s really exciting but really scary because this is where the film is really going to land or die, you know? This is where it either works or it doesn’t.
FC You co-wrote it with Riz Ahmed. How did the two of you meet and what made you want to collaborate? Do you have similar ways of working?
BT Riz works with so many different types of directors that he’s learnt to adapt to different people’s styles in a really exciting way. I’ve seen the way he processes and room and reads a room and he’s quite good at that. I think for us it was more about our sensibilities and our desires to make something that we hadn’t seen before and I think it was really a moment that, because of his cachet, he was able to be, like, I can really do something. He never said this to me, but it was really one of those moments when we knew we could take him as a vehicle and really push forward and try something different and exciting that we haven’t seen before. That was the impulse – what is that we’ve always wanted to do but never could and we tried to push it as far as we could in the ways that were possible with the budget that we had.
FC Where did the idea for the film come from? Was there anything of a personal nature that inspired it?
BT I think for both of us, one thing that really keeps us up at night is that fear of being irrelevant as an artist. I remember when I had my first kid, I thought, oh well, that’s it. Already there’s these younger brown guys coming after this little place that I’ve claimed for a moment. We always feel that there can only be one of us in this world. We want somebody to break out, but I want to be the one to break out and there’s always this thing, because there’s not space for many of us. Riz also felt that and we really wanted to push on that and also the idea of people who, as migrants, are living away from what would be considered our homelands as our bodies move from place to place.
Auto-immune disease generally comes in higher numbers to people who migrate from one country to the next. It happens because the body is adapting to a new climate, a new environment, and these things are happening because your body sees itself as a foreign entity. So it’s almost as if you’re seeing this identity crisis coming and fighting at a molecular level and it’s a really fascinating thing to see. And another thing in our own Islamic cultural understanding is that we understand illness as a gift, as a form of purification and as a form of veils being lifted where you can see things that are present in front of you that you might not be able to see because your heart is hardened, or whatever, so there are many realities that are present within us. So there’s the element with the hallucinations – are they happening outside of his body, are they dreams or are they realities that are actually coming to fruition? – and we wanted to play with that.
FC There’s quite a few hallucination and dream sequences, particularly the ones set on the train, which I assumed were to do with Partition. Was I right?
BT Yes, they were.
FC I felt very much that Riz’s character was pulled in all sorts of directions – his culture, his work, his illness – so I wondered how much this was a film about a search for where you belong, actually finding your identity and what makes a home.
BT That’s perfect! It really is about where is our home. I think I get a bit tired of when people think it’s a cultural clash thing. It’s not a clash of cultures – he knows what his identity is, he knows that. It’s more a question of do I actually fit into this, am I in a mould? There’s this old saying about how in order to move forward, you have to look back. Partition almost hangs over the film, because it’s one of those things that we don’t want to talk about. I think we all have our own traumas and our own inherited traumas.
For instance, right now I’m in Texas and I’m living in what used to be prison property where they used to have what they called Convict Leasing. Mostly it was black people who were imprisoned and the cotton pickers would lease out the convicts to work as cotton pickers – so essentially it was slavery. And they recently found a graveyard of 96 people that were buried here, right around the corner from where I live. So there are these things that are in the environment, that are in the ground, living with us and are present and I think even within our own genes are our bodies there are past traumas that we’re carrying on unless we confront them. So that’s what this film is doing – whether it’s the land or whether it’s us.
FC And there’s the things that you don’t know about. One of the things that struck me about the film was that, although we like to think of ourselves as a multi-cultural society, there’s so much that we don’t know about all the other cultures in this country that are right under our noses. And that’s become more relevant recently because we’ve perhaps become more insular because of the current situation. So I wondered if, in making the film, you were trying to broaden understanding in a more general sense.
BT I think when I’m working on any project, I’m trying to keep it as personal as I can because I feel the personal is political, and the more personal you can make it, the more radical it can be in what you’re trying to say. For me, the best cinema is the one that expands our hearts and I hope this film comes off as a paper cut to the heart, so that you’re, like, that hurts but it’s OK, yet it sticks with you and it stings a bit. And I feel if you can do that, then you’ve reached someone.
Mogul Mowgli is screened at the London Film Festival on 10 and 13 October and released in cinemas on 30 October.