Riz Ahmed on Co-Writing Virtual Cannes Market Entry 'Mogul Mowgli' and Pushing for More Representation Onscreen

Riz Ahmed — Getty — H 2020

The British actor also discusses using his company to support South Asian and Muslim filmmakers, and the importance of storytelling in difficult times.

Since winning Berlin’s European Shooting Star Award for the low-budget British crime drama Ill Manors in 2012, Riz Ahmed has burst onto the film and TV scene in somewhat spectacular fashion. In just eight years, he’s defected to the Rebel Alliance in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, joined the Marvel Universe with Venom, faced assassination attempts in Jason Bourne, won an Emmy for HBO’s The Night Of and amassed further acclaim for roles in Nightcrawler, The Sisters Brothers and Girls, while also keeping his musical roots alive with the band Swet Shop Boys, who have performed at Coachella and Glastonbury. His Virtual Cannes Market entry, Mogul Mowgli, offers something a little different, yet far more personal. The film tells the story of a British-Pakistani rapper (Ahmed still performs under the moniker Riz MC) struck down by an illness that threatens to derail his big break yet draws him closer to his cultural and religious heritage. The first feature from Ahmed’s own Left Handed Films banner (Charades is handling sales in the Virtual Market), the film was co-written and produced by the actor alongside first-time narrative feature director Bassam Tariq, whose documentary short Ghosts of Sugar Land won a jury prize at Sundance last year.

Speaking to THR, Ahmed discusses using his company to support South Asian and Muslim filmmakers, why storytellers are so important in today’s world and what he, Steve McQueen, Stormzy and Kendrick Lamar have in common.

Mogul Mowgli is about a British-Asian rapper dealing with issues of identity and cultural and religious heritage. How much of it was autobiographical?

Any time you tell a story, you draw on elements and emotional truths that are grounded in your own experience or the experiences of those around you. And that was certainly true for this. Bassam and I are both artists of color who take our responsibility in that role quite seriously. But in getting ourselves into that vocation of trying to represent our people, it’s interesting, because you might end up disconnected from the people most immediately close, like family or even ourselves. In my mind the film is very much about art and legacy.

How much does Mogul Mowgli represent what Left Handed Films is all about?

It represents a lot of what Left Handed Films stands for insofar as it’s about supporting new and emerging talent that wants to make quite bold work, something quite different and perhaps something that challenges people’s preconceptions about a film’s form and content. If you think of most films made by South Asian or Muslim filmmakers in the diaspora, I don’t think they’ve done anything like this before. It hasn’t ever been allowed to exist.

A couple of years ago, you announced your first self-written TV drama, Englistan, with the BBC, telling the story of a British Pakistani family over three generations. How is that coming along?

Development is a long process, particularly for projects that are really ambitious and mean so much to you. I’m very much of the opinion that I’d rather get something right than just get it out, particularly for a story that means so much to you personally as a creator. So that’s in development, but there’s no extreme ticking clock.

With Englistan and Steve McQueen’s upcoming drama Small Axe, set in London’s West Indian community and also taking place over several decades, there seem to be a number of projects chronicling the English experience of different nationalities. Have you felt an opening up in terms of such stories being commissioned?

There’s been an opening up generally, and at this moment of identity crisis for many countries, people are asking, "Who are we?" And people are answering the question in different ways. Some people are putting forward the very narrow narrative of who we are as a society and how we belong, and others are putting forward a revision of history, opening up the idea of who we are. Steve McQueen’s doing that, Stormzy’s doing that, Kendrick Lamar’s doing that.

Several years ago, you said we were living in "scary times," and you have discussed being racially profiled at airports. Given everything that has happened since then, are we living in even scarier times now?

Yeah, but scary times are are also times of opportunity. If you see it as a moment of anxiety, where people are questioning what the way forward is, it’s up to us as storytellers to step into that space and tell stories that allow us to deconstruct the binary paradigm of us and them. That’s what stories do by their very nature, reinforcing our common humanity. It’s a scary time for sure, but I really believe that in a moment like this, stories are really important.

You’ve recently moved between major studio blockbusters and much smaller indie projects. Do you enjoy shifting between the two scales?

Yeah, different projects allow for different things. Sometimes goings on a big budget movie can allow you the opportunity to learn skills in a different kind of way, while going on a smaller film can allow you to work with a different kind of freedom. I’m driven by the direction that offers some growth. I strongly believe that we should always continue to try and grow and challenge ourselves.

Left Handed Films… are you left handed?

Yeah, I’m totally left handed. But I guess it’s also about coming to things from an unorthodox viewpoint.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 22 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.