Mogul Mowgli is the debut narrative feature from award-winning documentary filmmaker Bassam Tariq (Ghosts of Sugar Land). A project borne out of a friendship that blossomed between the NYC-based director and British-Pakistani treasure Riz Ahmed, the film follows the story of rapper and ambitious workaholic Zed (Ahmed) who, on the cusp of his first world tour, is struck down by a debilitating autoimmune illness that forces him to confront what really matters.
Mogul Mowgli is unapologetically brown – almost every character is Asian, and the dialogue flits between English and Urdu in the same way that conversations flow between different generations in many immigrant households. The film is partly about the duality of the diaspora experience – something that is clearly reflected in the title, a re-working of the title of one of Ahmed’s tracks with his group Swet Shop Boys – but at its root it’s about a more universal human experience, and the way in which our wellbeing is fundamentally dependent on our interconnectedness.
As Zed attempts to reconnect with his parents and face up to his heritage after two years away from home, he descends into an emotional and physical crisis that manifests in visceral, surrealist hallucinations that force him to question the ideas of legacy, trauma and inheritance.
We caught up with Bassam and Riz to talk more about Mogul Mowgli, produced by Pulse Films, below.
VICE: What was the inspiration behind the film, and how did it come about?
Bassam: We actually met each other for the first time at my butchery in New York. At that time I was working full-time as a butcher, and me and Omar [Mullick] were trying to figure out what our next project was, or if I was even going to go back into filmmaking. I really think Riz and me were living parallel lives – the more I learned about him and the more we met up, the more I felt ‘this guy is very similar to me – he grew up in London, I grew up in Queens, and he's got this anxious energy that I can completely relate to.’
Riz: Working with someone who shares your experience emboldens you to explore it. Often if we feel like we don't see ourselves in the culture, we can internalise the idea that our stories don't matter, or they're not interesting, and I think that working with each other allowed us to open up and share more of ourselves and create from a more personal place. [It] gave us both the mutual confidence to lean into ourselves, and there's a lot of ourselves in this film.
Bassam: What I learned from my last project was that I love meeting people and working with people that I love. [Me and Riz] did a trip to Pakistan together, and it was like we were dating each other to see if we wanted to get in bed. I threw him these weird challenges and saw him really just rise to the occasion. I saw how inquisitive he was, how intelligent he was with asking questions, but also adventurous.
Riz, there are some obvious parallels between you and the character you play in this film. To what extent is Zed’s character based on your real-life experiences?
Riz: We wanted to blur fiction and reality to some extent. You start with your own life and the lives of people around you, and then it becomes its own thing and grows into its own character. The journey that Zed goes on is one that I've gone on and am still going on. I guess in one sense it's about how I merge my different selves into one coherent self, but at its root it’s something even more universal. I think what his character is facing is going on a journey from looking externally for validation and acceptance and love – from an audience, from Twitter, from America – and realising that true acceptance and self-love is something that needs to be found closer to home. Home is something that we often try and escape, but we will always hunger for, and his lack of self-acceptance is partly what the film is about.
His autoimmune condition is his body not recognising himself, rejecting himself, attacking himself. It's an internalised self-hate. That idea – emotionally and thematically – certainly I can relate to, and I think a lot of people can. We're looking out there for something that we need to find in here, and that's acceptance and love. It's not a prosaic thing – that actually causes illness. Populations who live in diaspora, who experience minority stress, are much more likely to suffer from autoimmune illnesses where our bodies literally do reject themselves, literally do tear themselves apart. If you look at the legacy of epigenetic trauma, whether it's genocide or slavery or war or Partition, it's real.
What do you think the legacy or the long-term effects of that generational trauma is if it goes unchecked?
Bassam: I think we have to look at our past to really understand what we've done and how we've gotten here. It's really beautiful and empowering when you look at the histories that we come from and the stories that are told of our people. That to me is the scary part – if we don't actually look back at where we come from, and learn from these beautiful heritages that we've inherited.
Riz: You don't know where you're going unless you know where you've come from. You're going to end up doing the same stuff to your kids that was done to you unless you go back and look at the trauma and understand the patterns. But it's not only trauma you've inherited – a big part of this film is about the richness that you've inherited. It's about the gift and the curse of inheritance, how we're all a link in a chain. There isn't just the danger of our inherited traumas going unchecked if we don’t look back, but the danger of not looking back at the wonderful gifts of our inheritance and cultural legacy, and not learning from that. And part of how we will remember that is by telling those stories. I think Zed's journey in the film is one of realising my way forward past this inherited trauma also lies in my inheritance.
Movies like this often get billed as being about representation or identity politics or the brown experience or whatever, but I think if you take the fact that the characters are brown out of it, it almost falls into the genre of body horror, or a psychological thriller. Were you inspired by any films in that category?
Riz: I'm glad you picked up on the horror elements. It's so hard to pin these films down into genre, and that's partly what we intended to do. With Four Lions or Nightcrawler or some of the work that I've really enjoyed doing, it's about finding that tonal ambiguity and the audience not being sure. This is a Sufi-comedy-musical-horror!
Bassam: I actually looked at [Robert] Bresson's A Man Escaped, which is about a man who's stuck in prison and is trying to break out. The way we filmed this is very similar to that. It's a beautiful film, but it's also dealing with gods, it's dealing with divinity. ‘Why am I in this situation? Who put me in this situation?’ So it’s an existential thriller in that sense.
Riz: Part of our mission on this film was to try and create our own language cinematically. Khalil Joseph and Arthur Jaffa talk about this idea of Black visual intonation, and how Black cinema shouldn't just mimic Western cinema with Black characters, but should take its rhythmic cue from Black culture. We went to the Islamic art collection in the Met Museum and spent a whole day there thinking how can we take from our inheritance and create a form of storytelling that’s not just a brown-washed version of a film we've already seen before, but is actually articulating the surrealism and magical realism of our culture: full of its mythology, its spiritual belief and the pathos of our humour.
Mogul Mowgli will be released on the 30th of October, 2020.