Very is an overused superlative but when it comes to Riz Ahmed, it’s necessary. He is a very thought-provoking human being. He is a 37-year-old British Pakistani very well versed in championing diversity and calling out the right from the wrong. He is a very thoughtful creative and society’s wellbeing hangs upon his conscience more so than most. He is also a very famous Hollywood actor and Qawwali rapper, both of award-winning acclaim.
You will recognise Ahmed from the intense roles he nails on the big screen in Four Lions, Venom, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Nightcrawler and Jason Bourne as well as his small-screen-stealing parts in The Night Of and The OA. If you haven’t, watch him in The Road to Guantanamo too. His music, born from university days as Riz MC then that of underground Swet Shop Boys fame, has an avid following with hits like ‘Englistan’ and Cashmere respectively. More recently, his solo album The Long Goodbye—dubbed as a poignant break-up with Britain—was well received and perhaps presents the clearest indication to date of what Riz Ahmed is about.
Today, on an August bank holiday Monday, sitting two metres away from us in a Hackney studio, Ahmed is just playing himself. His jumper, like the exposed brick behind him and the wooden bench between us, is beige—noticeably unremarkable. His beard is tittering on unkempt and his brown eyes offer a semblance of security while in his periphery. His phone, visible in the pocket of his distressed jeans, remains there, untouched for the duration of our time together. He is relaxed and nowhere else but present.
We are here to discuss his two latest films, Sound of Metal and Mogul Mowgli, but currently we’re mulling over the cultural implications of being left-handed. “They say it's linked to creativity,” muses Ahmed, which would make sense in his talented case. He proceeds to relay how his grandmother was left-handed but had her left hand tied behind her back and was forced to write with her right hand due to, we surmise, the social pressures of being left-handed and a cultural perception of bad luck dating back to biblical times. “It's weird, isn't it?” ponders Ahmed. “But not a completely flippant thing to bring up when talking about the evolution of our consciousness in today’s world.”
“For there to be long-term positive outcomes from this challenging year, we need to face up to everything the pandemic has exposed that isn't right."
That evolution has been disproportionately accelerated this year and part of the shift undoubtedly involves us deconstructing many of the old ideas and preconceptions we've had, not only about the global system but around our own identity too (like being left-handed). So to do anything other than tackle the effects of the pandemic head on, we agree would be doing the world a disservice.
“For there to be long-term positive outcomes from this challenging year, we need to face up to everything the pandemic has exposed that isn't right,” says Ahmed, who has lost two relatives to COVID-19 and been confined to unfamiliar territory of inactivity. “From the planet and the economy to how people still refuse to realise our wellbeing is so interconnected, and how systemic racism has been hardwired into global capitalism—one gave birth to the other,” says Ahmed, leaning in and on a roll. “It's a matter of, are we ready to really understand the level of sacrifice we need to make collectively, and shift the way we live and the way we think? Is that possible for us overnight?” He pauses to let what he’s just said sink in. “I am hopeful but we have a lot of unpicking to do.”
Unintentionally or not, the ‘we’ stands for men more than humanity, for it is us men who have the most unpicking to do. Since the #MeToo movement gathered pace in 2017 and amid other unspeakable men in the public eye, what masculinity means has continued to be challenged, which as a man, has not gone unnoticed to Ahmed. “The archetype of masculinity has had some really positive aspects to it, the idea of taking care of the people around you, the idea of standing up for what's right for your community, for your wolf pack in nature. But we've also attached a lot of really toxic ideas to masculinity,” he says.
Author Liz Plank, a friend of Ahmed’s, wrote the book For the Love of Men: A Guide to Mindful Masculinity and in it she points out that the word masculinity has ‘mask’ at the start of it. “It's the idea of this impenetrable, archetypal self that serves a purpose in protecting us from hurt, on an individual level, but leads to an inability for us to reach out and admit vulnerability,” says Ahmed, sounding everything like the PPE Oxford graduate that he is. “There is something really disorienting about how masculinity is being deconstructed right now. A lot of men feel like they're being told to be two completely different things at exactly the same time, which I think is actually healthy as we need to unravel that mask of masculinity.”
“It’s this idea of, okay, we're all out here chasing these fumes of success and ambition but it's all a mirage. Once the shit hits the fan, you're left to realise what really matters, and it's those fundamentals of health and community and family… rather than all that external stuff.”
The questioning of societal norms around masculinity is at the centre of both of Sound of Metal and Mogul Mowgli. Directed by Darius Marder, Sound of Metal details the story of Ruben, a drummer in a band with his girlfriend, Louise (Olivia Cooke), who live and tour happily in their RV. Suddenly, Ruben loses his hearing and with it his ability to pursue what he loves most—music. What follows is an exploration into how Ruben, a recovering heroin addict, comes to terms with his deafness, how the close-knit deaf community embraces him, and ultimately his life-changing decision to embark on surgery to have a double cochlear implant, which is where the film gets its title. As Ruben, Ahmed dons bleached hair, a ‘Please Kill Me’ tattoo across his chest and an impressive wardrobe of sleeveless T-shirts to show off his ripped physique.
In Mogul Mowgli, Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper whose career is taking off in New York as he gets ready to embark on a huge US tour. In a similar vein to Sound of Metal, Zed is then hit for six when he’s diagnosed with a rare muscle-wasting disease. The film, which Ahmed co-produced and co-wrote with director Bassam Tariq, embarks on the emotional rollercoaster of dealing with illness with his family after years of being on the road and the difficulty of letting go of his dreams. The film feels eerily personal to Ahmed, who excels with the kind of intense performance we’ve become accustomed to from him.
“They're both about workaholics who define themselves through the external validation they get as performers, through their success and the roles that they play in the world,” says Ahmed, aware of the parallels between the two roles, let alone his own career. “When everything’s been stripped away, they're forced to have a look at who they are underneath all those masks, underneath all that armour, underneath all those labels. It's difficult to sit with yourself in that void, or perhaps we don't realise we're workaholics until we're forced to stop and we suffer that withdrawal.”
As we discuss Ahmed’s work at length, a clear priority for him becomes apparent: relatability. He wants his films to resonate with audiences and this has become more prevalent in his thinking since the world has been locked down. Ahmed isn’t asking people to identify with being a rock star or rapper like Ruben and Zed, rather it’s this idea of life being dominated by work to the point it’s an unhealthy obsession, not a job.
“I think everyone can relate to that journey because it's kind of the story of lockdown,” says Ahmed. “It’s this idea of, okay, we're all out here chasing these fumes of success and ambition but it's all a mirage. Once the shit hits the fan, you're left to realise what really matters, and it's those fundamentals of health and community and family, and who you love, rather than all that external stuff.” Ahmed stops to have a mouthful of his lunch as he’s on a tight schedule today. He continues, “In a way, both Zed and Ruben find themselves in a purgatory where they're forced to step away from the world, step away from their old identity and face their true selves underneath all of that. That's actually something millions of people around the world have experienced this year, so strangely these films are very much in sync emotionally with what a lot of people might have been going through recently.”
Another recurring male trait both films go into compelling detail about is dealing, or not dealing with, vulnerability. Talking generally, Ahmed agrees it can be “scary to let people in because you have to show your underbelly, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and admit you don't know the answer and maybe you're scared and lost”. He believes it is why so often men would rather impose their ideas and argue their case as opposed to face up to what they're saying and acknowledge there might be a hint of truth in it.
In Mogul Mowgli, the uncomfortable truth comes in realising we’re not individuals. “Individualism is a myth, the planet and our wellbeing, it’s all interconnected,” says Ahmed firmly. “Zed doesn’t get to make his own fate, he’s inherited this condition from his dad but he’s also inherited music of his ancestors, and if he’s willing to let go he can hand on his music to a new generation. So for Zed, it's a big realisation that we’re all just a link in a chain running a section of a relay race but none of us are going to get to the finish line.”
The more we talk to Ahmed, the more we see how proud he is of Mogul Mowgli for how it tackles the intricate reality of cultural appropriation, with Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper borrowing from a black art form. “I try to rebalance that by thinking about what I contribute to the art form from within my own culture, from Qawwali music, from Suvi traditions, from Bhangra to Bollywood, and what we can contribute to the palette of hip hop whilst recognising where it comes from,” says Ahmed, it feels like on behalf of both Zed and himself. This is essentially where Mogul Mowgli derives from—a mongrel identity taken from a Mogul lineage and a Mowgli reality of being lost in a concrete jungle but not by your own choosing.
In Sound of Metal, the uncomfortable truth is less about inheritance (or lack of) and more about facing yourself. For Ruben, it’s the idea that he thinks he’s worthless without his work, worthless unless he’s taking care of his girlfriend, or unless he’s up on stage performing. Despite Ruben’s difficulties though, it’s important to note that deafness is never treated as a disability in the film. It's a culture, a community, and in that sense Ruben is not deaf, rather he is resisting the idea of being deaf. All the cast in the film are either deaf, culturally deaf or have cochlear implants, which speaks volumes about the importance of creating a film that strikes a chord with both the deaf and hearing communities.
“It was incredibly humbling and I hope that people connect with the film, that people who haven't felt seen feel seen, and that people who haven't seen some of those things before see things they haven't,” says Ahmed, visibly emotional. “I just want to say that it was one of the most enriching and powerful experiences of my life, getting to spend every day for up to a year within the deaf community learning to sign, making good friends and understanding a new way of being.”
Spend any amount of time with Riz Ahmed and you quickly realise the intensity he generates within every role he plays is manifested naturally from his own desire to aptly represent that character. But Ahmed himself is not an intense person to be around. He has a calm reserve about him, he’s well-mannered and he thinks before he speaks. It explains why he is at the peak of multiple industries, and why his opinion is widely coveted by the likes of the UK Government and British Vogue, where he was recently appointed a contributing editor. Despite the power his thoughts can generate and the spokesperson he’s often seen as, he’s quick to rebut the idea of being a political activist of sorts.
“If you happen to live inside a certain body, in a certain place, in a certain time, you don't really have a choice in speaking out, he says. “The very existence of a gay person, or a trans person, or a Muslim person, or an African-American person is not a political stand, it's asking for room to breathe, asking to be seen, asking to be heard. It's quite basic human needs that you're expressing. You don't necessarily pick these causes, they pick you."
“I remember [American novelist] Toni Morrison saying ‘Racism is a serious distraction. It's stopping me from writing other things. It takes up my bandwidth and brain space.’ I thought that was interesting about the Black Lives Movement this summer because it was essentially about saying, ‘Hey, this isn't a problem for black people to solve, it's for people who aren't black to solve.’
“The black population globally has been othered like no other, since the advent of colonialism to this very day, so it's right that we stand in solidarity with the people who are experiencing the sharpest end of the blade of this system of injustice, don’t you think?” When Ahmed talks, especially when he’s impassioned, he has this habit of softening what he says with a cursory question, like this, at the end of the sentence. The effect is his articulated thoughts lingers longer in your mind.
Now at an impressive juncture in his career, Ahmed admits he’s been exploring how he can bring together his music and his film work. Sound of Metal and Mogul Mowgli are obvious proof of this. “Music was always like, ‘Okay, I get to do me, I get to speak really personally from the heart, from a personal experience.’ And acting was like, ‘I'll step into the story you want to tell.’ Now I'm finding I want to apply the same barrier to entry that I placed for myself in music to film, which is to create from a more personal place. We can often compartmentalise these different experiences in our heads but bringing them all together reminds me of how similar it all is,” he says, empowered by his own actions.
“I'm realising one of the most powerful things you can do in the bigger fight for representation is to defiantly present who you are because trying to represent other people sets a heavy burden and can also be a bit patronising. You're not going to represent three million brown people [in the UK], so finding the boldness to just present all the different sides of who you are is a way of stretching culture, and that's what bringing film and music together has allowed me to do.”
Like we said, Riz Ahmed; ever present and here to present; ever thought-provoking and always thoughtful.
Photographs by Paul Scala
Styling by Olivia Harding
Grooming by Tara Hickman