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“I’ll Never, Ever Shoot in 4:3 Again”: Bassam Tariq on Mogul Mowgli

Riz Ahmed in Mogul Mowgli

Telling the story of Zed (Riz Ahmed), a British Pakistani rapper on the cusp of success when he begins experiencing a debilitating muscular condition, Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli fills in its narrative with hyper-specific details about the Muslim community and, more specifically, Zed’s resistance to finding his place in it. Others involve the integrity (or lack thereof) involved in the pursuit of fame, as a rival rapper with impersonally cringey lyrics threatens to steal Zed’s upward momentum. Throughout the film, these issues are dissected with surreal flourishes: what on paper might sound like a conventional narrative takes on a visceral, dream-like quality that accentuates Zed’s internal despair.

Along with co-director Omar Mullick, Tariq was selected as a 25 New Face of Independent Film in 2012 on the strength of their feature documentary, These Birds Walk. After continuing in the nonfiction world for several years (his short, Ghosts of Sugar Land, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019), Tariq’s latest feature is his fiction debut, and, anchored by a lead performance by Ahmed (who is no stranger to the rap game), it’s a riveting leap. 

Having premiered in the Panorama section of the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival before being picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing, Mogul Mowgli opens today in limited theatrical release. I spoke with Tariq about his youthful appreciation for hip-hop, transitioning from documentary to narrative filmmaking, and the large project he has upcoming. 

Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews how documentary filmmaking frees you up to only answer to yourself, that all you really need is a camera to go out into the field and, at the very least, get to work. Directing a narrative feature, however, is a different beast that requires you to seek approval from many different people, including investors, financiers, etc., before you can even enter production. There are so many moving parts that are ultimately out of the control of one single person. You began your career in nonfiction, but I wanted to ask if you had been wishing to make a narrative feature down the line. You’ve cited documentary filmmaker Robert Greene as an influence, and he is someone who’s known for straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction, so I’m wondering if you too were pursuing that goal? 

Tariq: It really is pretty crazy, and as this is the film’s first round of press for U.S.-based outlets, it’s exciting to know that you understand some of my reference points. Robert Greene and I were selected as Art of Nonfiction fellows with the Sundance Institute in 2016, and Robert has been an amazing friend and someone I consider a confidante. When we were participating in the fellowship, I realized that I really enjoyed the act of intervention, the ability to enter a space and contend with the characters in front of the camera. When I noted this in the program, someone remarked, “Well, that’s a lot like fiction filmmaking.” And I responded, “Really?”

Riz had also become a friend of mine around this time, as he had seen These Birds Walk and was familiar with my work. I was pursuing more documentary work around this time and began to realize how impatient I was growing with parts of the process. Whenever I make a nonfiction work, I see it essentially as a genre of filmmaking, a different kind of cinematic storytelling tool to explore. In the future, I still see myself in that nonfiction space when it feels right, but what I enjoy is that, when you’re working with actors, you both agree upfront that you’re going to have a dance together and that you’re going to allow each other to make the film the way you both want to make. There is a strong sense of agreement there. 

In documentary filmmaking, you engage in a very different kind of dance, and the power primarily rests in the hands of the subject. Of course, in the editing room, the documentary filmmaker possesses a lot of power on any given day, but they are still dependent on the access someone initially grants them. I would say that your subjects have a lot of power over you, whereas when you’re working with an actor…well, it depends on the actor and if they bring a sense of ego, of course, but Riz was very giving and egoless. Mogul Mowgli was such a different process for me, where it was like, “Wow, OK, I’m going to have to be present in a very different way.” I needed to find the tools where I could work with Riz to build something with him, whereas I assumed I would have to create a plan to work around what he was giving me.

Filmmaker: Knowing Riz’s background in hip-hop, I’m sure this film originated from a very personal place on his behalf, but I know you were also a fan of hip-hop growing up. If I’m not mistaken, I believe you and I have something in common: we were both raised in Queens throughout the 1990s.

Tariq: I was, yeah, although when I turned 11, my family moved to Texas, to Houston.

Filmmaker: So perhaps more of the “chopped and screwed” variety back then.

Tariq: It was chopped and screwed, yes, that was a massive thing. I would also say, when discussing my youth, that I’m a “product of 9/11.” It was a time where I needed to understand, “How the hell do I navigate being Muslim in the United States? Do I even consider myself Muslim at all?” Back then, I would then go and listen to the music of Yasiin Bey (known as Mos Def at the time) and Lupe Fiasco, two artists who were sort of my guiding lights back then. Bey’s debut, Black on Both Sides, is still an album I find myself returning to often. 

I think, growing up, I needed to understand and adopt a language of resistance, a language that already existed in culture that I could then hold onto for myself. Because I think so many of us who were first-generation immigrants when 9/11 happened felt like, “Well, shit, now we’ve got to be the ‘good kid.’” We became apologists for our culture and there was this huge movement of Muslims always feeling the need to apologize for everything. I was like, “Wait, why am I apologizing for this terrible event that happened? It was an awful thing that I had nothing to do with.”  But I carried that burden of representation with me for a long time.

I suppose I viewed these artists’ music as a framework for a liberation of my own thinking. It gave me permission to think differently and it taught me how to build an actual framework for how I could see the world (and how I wanted to see it). It was a gateway into that kind of space.

Filmmaker: As a side note, I know you’ve maintained many interests and have brought as many of them as you could into your life professionally. Even after These Birds Walk was released and you were considered a “working filmmaker,” I believe you opened a halal meat store, Honest Chops, with two friends of yours in Manhattan. What has it been like, wearing many different hats and assuming different business roles concurrently with your career pursuit of becoming a working filmmaker? 

Tariq: You know how it is as a writer, man, it’s so hard. You have to maintain so many different hustles just to make it at all. One of my close friends writes about video games, and it’s tough for him too. Even though video-game-writing is more lucrative than, hell, even filmmaking is (as video game consumers consume so much video game content for so many different sites), it’s still a fucking hustle for him, you know? I can’t even imagine what it’s like for you.

It’s particularly difficult when you’re a person of color and a working-class kid. My dad worked at Sbarro and then at a Denny’s while my mom worked at a daycare center. I’m not supposed to be doing what I’m doing, right? I went to college and my plan was to get a job that allowed me to take  care of my parents. Caring for my family is very important to me. I also care about the idea of community, as my community has given so much to me. The idea to open a meat store came out of that love for community. 

Back in the fall of 2013, These Birds Walk opened on 2nd Avenue at the Village East Cinema and I remember literally participating in post-screening Q&As and then running over to the location we wanted for the shop. We were closing the deal on the butchery at that time, and it was one of those things where it was like, “well, there’s no guarantee that I’m ever going to be able to make another film.” I was honestly exhausted after getting These Birds Walk out into the world. Looking back, the film was right at the cusp of this amazing moment where documentaries were about to be taken more seriously, and now, of course, we’ve arrived at this exciting moment where documentaries are the most watched films on Netflix. It’s been exciting to see the form be taken seriously and now it’s very much in the mainstream. But back in 2013, we were just on the cusp of that shift but not quite there yet. 

At the time, I was like, “I’m exhausted and I don’t know how to make any money doing this.” Also, my wife was pregnant and I was very focused on the idea of family and building community. That’s just as important as filmmaking is to me, but back then, I just didn’t realize that. I compartmentalized those existences and there wasn’t a clear way to connect all of those things in my head. I now realize that it’s all one big thing, right? It’s all about facilitating the building of community and that’s what I love about filmmaking. You build a community to capture a moment. When you’re first writing the story, you’re building a community, and then when you go into production, you’re building another community. Even in prep, you’re focused on the building of your community, of who will be with you on set. It’s a different sort of community vibe, sure, but when you go into production, you’re going into war. So, you need to ask, who is going to war with you? Who are your comrades? Then, when the film is released, you hopefully find your audience and that too can be a special kind of community. It can be beautiful seeing these different communities that you’re trying to build actually build. You also begin to see how people help you in your life to be a better filmmaker and a better person. 

That’s the thing about filmmaking: it’s all about building relationships. Otherwise, I don’t know, I’d be a sculptor. I’d be working by myself. If I just wanted to be solitary, I would try to be a writer, you know? As Andrei Tarkovsy notes in Stalker, “Truth is born of argument,” and I I love that he said that, as I need help when I’m making films. There are auteurs, of course, and that’s great, but I need help and I need people who are better than me to do certain things.

Filmmaker: What was the experience like collaborating on the screenplay with Riz? I remember you posted a photo on one of your social media accounts of a whiteboard with story beats for the film written out in marker. When you’re strategically breaking down a story in that way, is that also a collaborative process? 

Tariq: Massively, yes. Riz and I were in this together from the start, and if you know me well enough, you know I don’t do anything alone. Sometimes I wish I could, but I don’t know how to. I have an older brother who is really important in my life, so I’m the younger child in the family and I have an even larger extended family. My co-director on These Birds Walk, Omar Mullick, is still one of my closest friends, and to not have him by my side directing Mogul Mowgli was scary. Basically, Riz became my “Omar Mullick” on this film [laughs]. We were making this together.

At the beginning of the process, I was hesitant to bring Riz into the process too much, but then I realized the success of this film is going to rely on our working together very closely and trusting one another. I did a lot of the actual writing of the script, but Riz’s raps were really central to the story, of course, and I pushed him. I was like, “Look, you’ve got to rap in this film,” and he was like, “Eh, do I really need to be a rapper in this?” I was adamant about it though.

Riz and I took a trip to Pakistan a few years ago and, as we were hanging out, I saw that he processed the world through music and, specifically, through lyrics. He’s essentially a writer who has been an excellent lyricist who then wound up becoming a successful actor. That’s something you see with other successful actors—they initially set out to do other things that they’re good at and possess the talent for, but then they become more well known for this other thing and that’s what we associate them with and rightfully so. Personally, I think Riz is an actor for the ages, but I’m  quite biased since I work with him and find him to be a close friend. All the same, I was really honored to have that professional time with him.

Filmmaker: The film opens with his character hyping himself up as he prepares to perform a concert on stage. The opening really captures the tightrope act of performing this genre of music. It can be a bit messy if you slip up on a lyric or don’t enunciate a certain word that emphasizes the rhyme. I’m assuming Riz is a very confident performer, but he’s playing someone who is somewhat more vulnerable.   

Tariq: This goes back to the idea of surrounding yourself with people who are better than you. I know I’m not a fucking lyricist, but I did write lyrics for the film [laughs]. They’re terrible! A few of them made it into the film, but I’m never going to reveal which ones they were. They’re very few, and maybe some are lines I threw in there that weren’t for Riz but were included in the “Pussy Fried Chicken” song performed by Nabhaan Rizwan in the movie [laughs]. But whenever I offered lyrics to Riz, for example, I needed to know that his heart was in it. I needed him to believe in the words he was saying. I also wanted someone that could play with the idea of feeling like you’re past your prime and missed out on something. Rap is such a young man’s game, and I was interested in exploring that concept.  

Filmmaker: Was it a very different experience working with a cinematographer on a narrative project for the first time? Looking over the credits of your DP, Annika Summerson, I see that she previously shot another film that was hip-hop focused, Vs., centered around the UK battle rap scene. How did you develop that working relationship?

Tariq: Annika was amazing to work with and she also has a background in TV. She also recently shot Prano Bailey-Bond’s film, Censor. The element that was most important to me when searching for a cinematographer on this film was… look, the film is very male-heavy. I wanted someone that could soften it a bit, from my perspective, and she really challenged me in a number of ways. She’s very smart and very quick and I learned a lot from her. 

She taught me a lot about timing, and I think that’s the main thing. If there’s one thing I would tell a documentary filmmaker who’s planning on going into fiction-filmmaking, it’s that how you plan and schedule out your days is truly everything. You can plan to be very intentional with your shot selections and your framing, but you also have to be at peace with a shot looking a little bad. If the shot merely communicates the story, that’s OK! Not every shot you film is going to be amazing, right? But because you’re crafting it, there can be a strong desire to make every shot amazing. But they’re not all going to be amazing.

It’s tough because when I see a stinker of a shot or something, it can be hard for me [to accept], but it’s one of those things where you just have to learn to be okay with it. That being said, I’ll never, ever shoot in 4:3 again. It’s the most unforgiving framing in the world, just very hard and unapologetic [laughs].  

Filmmaker: Earlier this year, Riz and yourself programmed a BFI series of films that inspired Mogul Mowgli (along with a section dedicated to “films that have been influential in your lives”). Were these films that you were using as visual and story references while in production or, in some instances, did you only realize they were influences on your work after the fact? 

Tariq: Honestly, sometimes those were only realized after the fact. I think the Robert Bresson film, A Man Escaped, is excellent. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but it’s really quite simple, yet I didn’t realize the film’s influence on me at the time. It was our sound designer, Paul Davies, who pulled me aside one day and said, “You should really watch Bresson’s film. It reminds me of what you’re attempting.” I began embracing that more and more, the idea of what we don’t see in the film due to shooting in the 4:3 ratio. The film should feel a little incomplete and we’re asking the audience’s help to complete it, to fill in the rest for us. We have to adjust to accepting an incomplete idea of framing, since we’ve become so accustomed to everything being shot in a widescreen format and including tons of information. For this film, the sides of the frame needed to be filled in by the viewer. It’s a film bursting with ideas and perhaps our mind can fill in the rest. 

Another film that really inspired me was Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Güeros. That’s a movie  I really love and keep close to me. It’s such a “fuck you” to everything we know about cinema. It feels so specific to this small neighborhood in Mexico City and this specific moment in time in Mexico. When I first viewed the film, I didn’t know anything about it, but I watched it on a Delta flight andcouldn’t believe the film existed. Even now, when I watch any frame of that film, I’m such a fan.

Filmmaker: Over the past year, as you’ve toured the (virtual) festival circuit with Mogul Mowgli, you discussed not necessarily knowing what was to come next for your career but that you hoped it wouldn’t take the same length of time to arrive. I believe you won’t have to now, as there’s been some recent news about you potentially working with Marvel in the near future. I’m not sure if you can speak to that or not, but are you excited for the opportunity to continue in the narrative world on an even larger scale?

Tariq: Yeah, I think that there was a rumor going around about what I was doing next, but I can confirm, on the record, that I am going to be directing Blade. I can say that. I can confirm that, on the record now.

Filmmaker: Oh, you can? Okay.

Tariq: Yeah, I can.  I’m working very closely with a great writer, Stacy Osei-Kuffour, who worked on the HBO series, Watchmen, and a few other great shows. I’m really honored to be working with her and, of course, Mahershala Ali [in the title role]. We’re deep in prep now, and the film is going to be coming out in 2023. The experience thus far has been a huge learning curve for me. The pitch process was a long one, and then the last thing they had to do before choosing me was watch Mogul Mowgli, and I thought to myself, “Oh no, I’m not going to get it. They’re going to watch my film where Riz takes a shit three times.” 

Blade has played a huge part in my life, as I was a huge comic book fiend growing up. I’m really honored to have received the gig, although I hid the news from the “arthouse world” for a little while as I know it’s one of those things that people might scoff at a bit. Nonetheless, I’ve always been a fan of these types of films. I think there are many great people who have made excellent films “in this world,” so to speak, and I’m curious to see what I can do with that toolbox.

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