‘Mogul Mowgli’ Shows Why We Need to Empower Muslims to Tell Our Own Stories

Bassam Tariq’s film about a British Pakistani rapper honors the internal struggle between assimilation and preserving our heritage and identity.

Sep 13 2021, 4:55pm

I was 18 years old before most of my friends correctly pronounced my name. Until then, I would let people mispronounce it to make their lives easier. I convinced myself that this was something that I chose instead of something I accepted. 

Kashif, the name given to me by my parents, represents my culture and my religion. 

But as a Pakistani-American Muslim kid growing up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, it felt like a burden to have a name that didn’t connect to the people around me. While this may not be a unique story, it is a meaningful one to me as the co-founder and president of Pillars Fund, a grantmaking organization dedicated to supporting Muslim leaders, narratives, and talent in the United States. And it’s one of the many reasons why Mogul Mowgli feels like a revolution on screen. 

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Released in the U.S. last week, Mogul Mowgli is the feature debut of director Bassam Tariq, a Pakistani filmmaker raised in Queens. The film tells the story of an aspiring rapper, Zed (Riz Ahmed), on the brink of his biggest career break. When he receives a crippling medical diagnosis, Zed is forced to put his career on hold and reconnect with his immigrant Pakistani family in England. [Editor’s note: the film was produced by produced by Pulse, in association with VICE Studios].

In a family dinner scene, Zed’s childhood friend tells him: “Your name’s not Zed. It’s Zaheer, bro. And the moment you realize that, things will be better for you.” 

“Ok, listen: I know my name is Zaheer,” he responds. “But I’ve got the confidence to just put my little twist on it without crying.”

I see so much of myself in this conversation: the internal struggle between assimilation and honoring my cultural heritage and identity, the rationalization of a borrowed name. It’s rich nuances like this—details that are unapologetically reflective of the second-generation Pakistani immigrant experience—that make Mogul Mowgli so special, and the film is full of them. 

When Zed winces in discomfort as his parents read Islamic prayers over him in the hospital, I remember my own agitation when my parents would offer me prayers instead of advice and comfort. When Zed’s father asks him to reject a medical treatment that could help him walk but potentially impact his prospects of having children, I’m reminded of conversations with my own father about the challenges of starting a family. When I watch Zed and his parents argue about his chosen profession, I see my South Asian friends grappling with immigrant parents whose children embody their unfulfilled hopes and dreams. 

Perhaps the most compelling part of the film, for me, was the role the partition of Pakistan from India plays in the story. While there are only a few explicit references to it, mostly as an experience that shaped Zed’s parents and their generation, that backstory is impossible to divorce from the movie’s story of a young man trying to repair a strained relationship with his parents while navigating two completely different worlds.

The partition was an event that shaped generations of South Asian families; it remains a source of trauma, pride and everything in between. Nearly everyone who lived through it has stories of losing loved ones and has engaged in fierce debates over its politics. It shaped how the generation that experienced it related with their own children, particularly those who immigrated to the West. They parented us through a time capsule full of social and political ideologies, language, food, expectations, and restrictions. 

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My earliest memories of this history were the stories my grandfather shared with me. He was 17 years old in 1947 when his father, my great grandfather, was murdered on a train during his journey to the newly created Pakistan. As with so many family oral traditions, my family members would tell this story with grandeur, centering my great grandfather as a martyr pursuing freedom. But these were always the sort of whispers you shared with your relatives—not something you saw in a movie. 

At least, that’s what I thought, until I saw Mogul Mowgli. Dreamy sequences of Zed on a rickety train, recalling his family’s migration story, become a visual metaphor for an intergenerational trauma that hasn’t healed. These references are bold and unapologetic, and they never try to explain themselves for the benefit of a mainstream audience. It’s something that the viewer, even if they don’t share the exact experience, can viscerally relate with.

In many ways, Mogul Mowgli is a film that is so specific it could only have been made by people who have carried these experiences with them for their entire lives. In addition to starring as the lead, Ahmed produced and co-wrote the film alongside Tariq. Both of them are an integral part of the Pillars Artist Fellowship, a program Pillars Fund launched earlier this year that will support emerging Muslim directors and screenwriters. This film, along with our work together, is important to me, because seeing Pakistani Muslim filmmakers unapologetically tell our stories is an experience I was deprived of growing up.

Still from 'Mogul Mowgli," via Strand Releasing

Like many teenagers, I was lonely and seeking validation during a time when many of us crave connection and belonging and are attempting to discover our identity. For me, there was no story on television that showed the diverse experiences of our people, our culture, our history, our traditions, or the nuances and difficulties of living between two worlds. In the absence of that, the only thing left was to try to be the characters I saw on screen. I would put on different masks for different people based on what I saw around me. But watching Mogul Mowgli, I can begin to recognize what it feels like not to have to wear any type of mask, to exist exactly as you are. It’s populated by characters that are comfortably familiar and reminiscent of my own family and friends. It shows that representation doesn’t have to feel forced or tokenized; it can be truthful and authentic. I can’t help wondering what my life would have looked like had I seen a film like this when I was 15.

I believe the best art happens when artists aren’t shackled in their creativity—when they have full creative license to tell the story they want to tell, exactly as they want to tell it. Unfortunately, Hollywood has often done the exact opposite when working with communities of color. Instead of giving our communities the creative license to tell their own stories, it tells our stories from the perspective of the white gaze. It has created a generation of people who never saw anything remotely relatable on screen; when they did see something, it was often so watered down or inaccurate that it was difficult to take any pride in it. 

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I’ve dedicated the last ten years of my life to supporting Muslim leaders and artists across the U.S., helping create the conditions and opportunities for stories like Mogul Mowgli to exist. Mogul Mowgli shows us that when you empower Muslims to tell our own stories, we produce rich, nuanced narratives that are universal in their appeal.

As such, I’d argue that the film’s greatest achievement isn’t just its critical acclaim; it’s also how it forces Hollywood to recognize the value in stories for and by communities that have been ignored or shut out by the film industry. As Tariq’s journey as a director demonstrates, when immensely talented artists get opportunities to share those truths, they often create something so powerful the world cannot ignore it. On the heels of Mogul Mowgli’s release, it was announced that Tariq has been tapped to direct Marvel’s Blade, starring fellow Muslim artist Mahershala Ali. Although Tariq’s talent speaks for itself, it’s an opportunity that feels like it would have been nearly impossible without this project, which showed the world what a vulnerable and powerful filmmaker he is. 

To me, the beauty of Mogul Mowgli lies in its simplicity. Zed’s parents will never fully understand him, and he will never fully understand them. The ties that bind them are stretched and strained, but rarely broken. I hope Mogul Mowgli creates more opportunities for Muslim artists to share their stories, because if the experiment of this film shows us anything, it’s that our communities have an abundance of important stories to share. 


Tagged:

riz ahmed, bassam tariq, Mogul Mowgli, Muslim representation, Pakistani representation

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