Pause that Netflix binge and make space at the top of your movie list because Mogul Mowgli is a must-see. Breaking barriers while touching on a number of themes including illness, spirituality, religion, identity, relationships, separation, immigrant parents (the list goes on), the film is sure to captivate any audience.
Directed and co-written by Bassam Tariq, the story stars heartthrob Riz Ahmed as Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper, who is caught between what he calls the biggest moment of his career and battling a severe illness. Depicting a child of immigrants caught between two identities, Ahmed beautifully plays Zed in a way that many children of South Asian immigrants can relate to.
In the story, we follow Zed’s journey of understanding both himself and his family. Despite rapping about issues that affect the diaspora and the importance of family, Zed has spent years away from his own family. Returning back to Britain from New York, Zed struggles with his identity as he is questioned for being a sellout who has drifted away from his roots. It is then the story faces a twist when Zed is admitted to the hospital with an autoimmune disease, causing him to reflect on his relationship with not only his parents but life itself.
Although it consists of an all brown cast, Mogul Mowgli tells a story any culture or family can relate to. In an interview via Zoom, Daily Kos spoke to Tariq and cast members Anjana Vasan, Sudha Bhuchar, and Alyy Khan about their experience working on the film, the importance of representation, and the message of resilience the story relays.
“It’s not just about going this is a brown story—isn’t that great? It’s about how the brown stories are told. It is not just like ticking a box and saying, you know, here’s some brown people in something—well done us. It’s not, that’s not enough,” said Vasan, who played the unapologetic character of Vaseem. “I think it’s about how we tell our stories on our own terms. And, about maybe subverting the gaze of what we’re used to seeing, those things are important. And I think Mogul Mowgli is an example of that kind of film.”
Each and everyone we spoke to from the cast shared the same sentiment: “The cast was phenomenal.” Brown and Asian, the cast not only brought color to the screen but diversity within its own set. Bhuchar noted that the film was not made with the question, “Will white people understand it?” Instead, it presented itself unapologetically with the motto that they will.
“This is a family story. It’s a diaspora story. It’s a story of identities, a story of trauma, fathers and sons, families, you know, it’s all those things,” Bhuchar said. She added that stories that address issues like this film does are “very rooted in who we are, and how we want to see ourselves not how the white gaze portrays you.”
“I’d love people to be able to see that our histories are what makes us and it makes us strong and fragile at the same time. We can only go forward if we accept that rather than try to run away from it.”
She notes that Zed’s character exemplifies this with his feelings of running away, only to find “home at home” when he is at his most fragile. Both Bhuchar and Khan deliver breathtaking performances as Zed’s parents Bashir and Nasra as they give an insight into the struggles, trauma, and love immigrant parents share.
“Ostensibly, this is a brown representation of global issues. It might be from a religious brown background, but those values could transcend and relate to anyone of any color in any situation,” Khan said. “The conversations that one is having in the film have a very global identification for me. So I think, representatively, it [the film] will just break down color barriers even further, as opposed to fly the flag for one particular community, so to speak.”
Tariq noted that much of the experiences in the film were based on what he and Riz had experienced. The film portrayed real families the two came from and depicted “vulnerability” which Tariq felt “everyone brought to this project.”
“Working with friends and collaborators that you share a history with can be so tough, but what’s so great is when you have this mutual desperation to share the same thing, and you know, that only you can do it with the other person. It’s just also so damn exciting, but we both [Ahmed and Tariq] know that you need each other to get to that next part of it. So I think that was the really exciting part. I couldn’t have done it alone. He couldn’t have done it without me. And, and it’s an honor that we were able to do it together.”
Tariq also noted the significance of representation, in addition to the pressure that comes associated with it for people of color breaking barriers.
“The thing is that we don’t get to take many risks, right? Like we’re not allowed, we’re not given that many chances. So when we’re given a chance to really be in these places, we feel like we have to perform at our best we can’t make mistakes,” he said.
He added that an opportunity like this has creatives feel a burden that if they mess up.
[We] “may hurt other filmmakers who come after this … I feel like there’s a burden that a lot of us feel as we’re doing this work, where we want to make sure we’re opening the doors wider for more people.”
Tariq’s passion for the film, in addition to opening doors for others, is clearly portrayed in his work. He hopes that seeing this film will make others more compassionate and “give each other the chance to take more risks, mess up a little bit, and be more ambitious.”
“How we tell our story is something important, I feel like we come from a culture that’s constantly flipping language on its head, we come from a culture of constantly telling stories out of chronological order I think that’s what I want us to pull from, and I want us all to have the permission to do that more, you know, from each other.”
Khan applauded Tariq’s work, noting that what inspired him to be a part of the film was the team involved behind it. Speaking about his acting career, he shared that what inspires him is “the search for truth.”
“It’s not just the art you’re creating, as an actor, I look for those few and far moments in between the entire process, whether it be recorded or not, whether it is seen or not, where that search actually comes into fruition.”
Khan’s role as Bashir was noteworthy. He portrayed a “fractured” father and son relationship which many second-generation South Asians can resonate with—but it didn’t come easy.
“Ally Khan compared to the dad, Bashir, is completely different and so I had to unlearn what I had learned […] try and re-evaluate this fractured relationship, between father and son because it was of a different time and in a different place.”
Khan shared that having a strong and close emotional relationship with his children, he found it difficult to understand why Bashir could not share that relationship with his own.
Living by the life motto that “aging is inevitable, growing old is optional,” Khan said he considers his children his “best friends,” with whom he shares a mutual understanding of rest and space.
“I was trying to figure out the hurdles that Bashir had to overcome in his life, for his struggle for survival, for his question, putting bread on his family table, whatever else, why he would not have that emotional connection,” Khan said. Khan thought of other factors, including first-generational migrant trials and tribulations a lot of people in our lives can relate to as circumstances that have forced them to be the way that they are. “I’ve been privileged enough not to have led that type of a life, the disconnect that I had to make between these two kinds of psyche, you know, playing around in my mind was, again, quite challenging.”
Despite the differences he had with his character Bashir, Khan portrayed the role naturally. One of the most mesmerizing scenes of the film happens to be Khan’s favorite, during which he assists Zed in the shower. Hearing the behind-the-scenes effort that went into this depiction was astounding. Khan shared the different perspectives that were taken into account, in addition to the improvisation the scene required to be the masterpiece it is.
Vasan also praised Khan and Ahmed’s acting, and the relationship they portrayed. She expressed that representation like this inspires her as an actress. From a young age, Vasan considered herself a “drama club nerd” and knew she wanted to go into acting but was “always trying to find excuses not to commit.” It wasn’t because she wasn’t passionate about having an acting career, but due to the lack of representation on screen.
“As much as I wanted to be an actor, I felt like I probably couldn’t,” Vasan said. “Where does a brown girl born in India growing up in Singapore […] where does that fit in into the world of acting, and definitely not in film or TV like that, that was something I never even thought about.”
Despite loving the field and how “collaborative it was,” it wasn’t until teachers encouraged her and she moved to the U.K. that Vasan furthered her training and started her acting career.
“I never had a plan,” she added. “I just thought, I’ll keep doing this until my luck runs out. Because I was convinced that at some point that was going to stop.”
While Vasan said her parents were always supportive of her aspirations, breaking the stereotypical narrative that “Asian parents don’t want their kids to go into the arts,” she herself did not see people who looked like her onscreen. “I wasn’t interested in sort of being a token or being part of anything that was sort of too stereotypical of a role you know,” she said. She shared that growing up in a Tamil family, even Tamil cinema failed to depict women of darker skin tones in its industry. According to Vasan, many women in Tamil films were dubbed over and not even Tamil. She noted that the industry would “much rather have a very, very light-skinned woman play a Tami part than an actual Tamil woman,” which subconsciously led her to believe that “there wasn’t a place for brown women in TV and film.”
This film broke barriers in all forms. Not only did it center around a person of color with illness who identified as Muslim, but its female characters were not the stereotypical South Asian women often portrayed on screen.
“It was cool to play a manager who wasn’t a man. If you think about films about music, and you think about characters that archetype manager part, it’s never a woman, it’s always like a guy in a suit,” Vasan said.
Her character Vaseem was a badass South Asian woman who tells you how it is. But Vasan also made a good point on describing such characters. She noted that female roles are often described as “strong or not strong,” taking away “what is going on underneath” the character.
Bhuchar, who’s been an actor for more than 35 years, noted that her character Nasra was also more than just a stereotype or a caring immigrant mother who spoke Urdu. “I just love the fact that she’s a sort of mother who’s like the anchor of this family, where there is a kind of fragility in the family between her and her husband and his trauma.” She added that as a mother herself, she could relate to Nasar keeping the family together. And as a mother to sons, including one who suffered a serious life-threatening illness, Bhuchar was able to bring herself into the role of Nasar.
“I had a lot of emotional kind of truth that I carry with me from that lived experience of that, you know, although my son was younger than Zed is.”
Bhuchar’s own personal experience as a mother allowed her to improvise scenes well and depict an accurate and realistic relationship with Zed. For Bhuchar, switching off naturally from one language to another and utilizing “underused creativity” was enjoyable. She shared that throughout her career she has made use of different languages to depict immigrant stories and while this is not always accepted as the norm, it tells the truth. She shared that her identity is a “big defining feature” in her career which has allowed her to learn who she is, and that this film embraced diversity like no other. She touched on an important point: that people often ignore women of her age.
“When people look at Asian women of my age, they do sort of walk past you because they feel like ‘oh Auntie-ji you know, what does she got to say, really? And actually, the Auntie-jis have got a lot to say.”
When asked what advice they would give young South Asians following in their footsteps, Tariq, Bhuchar, Khan, and Vasan each spoke of believing in yourself, having passion, and the importance of not giving up.
Khan emphasized that acting is hard work that should not be taken for granted but like anything else, education is key. He shared that pursuing an education, no matter in what field, is not a waste: “College is precious,” he said. Similar to any field, he said, one must really have a passion for acting in order to pursue it and be “ready for the rough ride.”
Vasan noted that while it is great to be grateful, she would tell her younger self and others to not apologize as much as she did at the start of her career, and to be more ambitious about it.
“There’s no harm in trying, no harm in going for and if you know that this is what you want to do and there’s nothing else you’d rather do, then go for it. And don’t apologize for it. You know, because you might still enjoy it, while you’re trying.”
Bhuchar also spoke of the resilience and strength needed in the creative field in addition to being one’s true self.
“Don’t let yourself fall into agendas, which is not easy … because we’re so far from equality and having an even, level playing field.”
Tariq also emphasized a central theme in the film: the importance of family and one’s legacy.
“As South Asians, a lot of us— if you are a working-class— have to also provide for your family. That’s the culture that we come from and I think we should do that. If we have that obligation in our household, whether there’s a family member that’s sick or some obligation that’s keeping us that we feel are a burden, we should not look at it as a burden, but we should see that it’s a gift,” Tariq said. “I feel like the family structures that we come from are a privilege and there’s something really beautiful in that service. I believe that in that service, there is a growth that you will have that you should not get worried about.”
He continued that we often are hard on ourselves and compare our accomplishments with others.
“It’s a general thing in our culture, where we are compared to our peers, constantly. Our parents do that to us. So I feel like for us to really put that noise to the side and, and learn about ourselves and learn about what moves us is so important.”
Tariq ended the conversation by reminding us that “we all have our own paths,” and the meaning of success varies per individual and should not be compared. “We look at our peers, and we sometimes feel like we’re not doing enough, but you are enough, you just have to figure out what’s right for you,” Tariq said. He added that he feels the best way to measure success is through things that you can control, “and you can really control a few things like your temper, your health, your relationships— those are really the things you have control over and just measure success based on those things.”
Of course, being the brilliant talents they are, Vasan, Bhuchar, and Khan are working on new projects yet to come. Tariq, on the other hand, has the biggest directing job of all time to complete during this pandemic: homeschooling his children.
‘Mogul Mowgli’ is now playing in select theaters.