Bassam Tariq on Hitting the Right Beats in “Mogul Mowgli”

For such an otherwise clean metaphor, Bassam Tariq had to appreciate that fact he was literally sitting on a toilet when facing a “shit or get off the pot” moment in filming his narrative feature debut “Mogul Mowgli.” After impressively arranging a schedule that could allow the film to be shot in chronological order, the director had realized he might not have an ending.

“We’re filming this and we have no idea if this is going to work,” recalls Tariq, clustered inside a bathroom with his star and co-writer Riz Ahmed and Bennett McGhee, one of the film’s producers, wondering whether to put a finer point on a detente between Zed (Ahmed), a rapper who is none too happy to back home getting bedrest after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and his parents. “I remember I had written it and I pushed everybody like, “Yeah, but we don’t know if we buy it.”

While the situation was rife with uncertainty, Tariq could take comfort in what he had learned up to that point on his narrative feature debut, finding out time and again things would work out in putting trust in his collaborators and going for the bold choice rather than the safe one.

“It was frightening, because you don’t know if you got it,” adds Tariq, who advised Ahmed to rough himself up a bit before filming the climactic scene in whatever way he saw fit, who in turn brought in Alyy Khan, who played his father, to talk it out. “[The scene] can’t be from the outside because before it was the outside, and it’s like, ‘No, let him in. Bring him into the world’ Then they both just got into it. I pray it works as an ending.”

It does, while serving as an impressive introduction as well to what Tariq brings to the table as a narrative filmmaker after first starting out with a pair of stunning documentaries in “These Birds Walk” and “Ghosts of Sugar Land.” As someone used to letting life unfold before the camera, “Mogul Mowgli” took shape along a similar course, growing out of a friendship that the director had struck up with Ahmed after “These Birds Walk” co-director Omar Mullick thought they’d make good friends. Both Pakistanis who were the first generation in their families to grow up abroad — Tariq in America and Ahmed in England — the two indeed could bond over, among other things, having a similar experience of growing up in a place they never entirely could feel a part of but hardly identified with having roots somewhere they rarely traveled to.

That feeling is expressed to an exhilarating degree in “Mogul Mowgli,” in which Zed’s condition leads him to press pause on a tour and a lack of movement paired with immediately being confronted with family he’s spent much of his adult life running away from leads to an even more complicated reckoning of who he is internally than where he’ll be physically now living with a potentially debilitating disease. While Zed can’t safely spit tracks as he once did at rap battles, “Mogul Mowgli” lets his ferocious spirit carry on unfettered in its very fabric, with memories of his youth and days of performing flittering across the screen in cross-cuts at the same speed they race through his mind. The film takes on an additional authenticity in having Ahmed, known first in London for his wicked way with words as a rapper, play someone clearly so close to him, though then again, Tariq invested just as much of himself in shaping the character and the combination of the two practically explodes off the screen.

With the film arriving in America following its premiere at Berlin last year, just before its own world tour was shut down by the coronavirus, Tariq spoke about the team behind “Mogul Mowgli” possible, the advice given by Derek Cianfrance on working with actors for the first time and how he connected with Ahmed.

Riz has said that the two of you were in Pakistan in the months leading up to the shoot and didn’t know exactly what this was going to be – what clicked into place to figure out what this was?

What was funny was, when we were doing this, I had some footage that I shot while I was out in Pakistan with him and Riz was like, “Yeah, that footage was really good. I got the song coming out called ‘Mogambo,’ along with the ‘Venom’ release. You want to put it out?” I was like, “Nah. I don’t know if the footage is good enough.” But he goes, “No, just do it,” and he even was like, “You’ve got this one scene, got me doing this, doing that.” [And still] I was like, “I don’t know, but let me try.” That’s what I’ve loved about him is he’s always been so empowering and I hoped that I could be the same for him. That’s what it was. The whole [movie] for me was a test to see if I could work with my brothers. Honoring that friendship and that relationship is really the most important thing to me. Every film endeavor that I try to do is just making sure that there is that amount of respect, but also that drive of us pushing and empowering each other to do better, that’s what clicked for me was to see that that’s what we were doing for each other.

Coming from different parts of the diaspora being across the pond from one another, I had to wonder were the commonalities regarding the Pakistani experience something that could help you figure out a through line?

I remember when I was in London, we were switching and trying to figure out what the hell we would do with each other. He invited me over for dinner and I met his parents and I was like, “I get it. I know this world.” It was really easy to then step in. The one thing is that in America the South Asian diaspora is a bit more affluent whereas in Britain, they’ve been there for a few generations, so there’s this working class that came during the Commonwealth era. Now I can see that the Atlantic Ocean just separates people [because] there is this large body of water that makes the migration across a more concerted effort, there’s a lack of a connection that we would have with the motherland whereas [in Britain], they’re deeply connected — the word “assimilation” is a cuss word there because there was this massive red-lining.

All the things that I think happened to a lot of the LatinX community here [in America] was happening and still happens to this day to the Asian community there and what we call here the South Asian community, they call there the British-Asian experience. So being a working class Pakistani from Queens and then Southwest Houston, I deeply connected to Riz and we had very similar stories. It took me awhile to come to it, but I’m comfortable with being who I am and knowing that filmmaking for me, I have to be very honest about my experiences, so I think allowing Riz that space was really important to me, to make sure that he wasn’t masking or putting on other characters. No, he’s going to be playing a version very close to that. We were trying to find other ways around it and that, but I think it was quite exciting to see him be unleashed as Zed.

It never sounded like you were serious about it, but I heard there Zed could’ve been a boxer rather than a rapper at one point, where the idea still applied of measuring up to anyone in front of him, but it would’ve obviously had far less of a personal connection to Riz. Did you have to get him on board to play someone closer to himself?

…Also, the kid just did “Sound of Metal” [playing a musician], but I was very adamant because, look, he’s a lyricist first. Being his friend and knowing him, he’s actually a poet and he just happens to be a very talented, next level actor, so it was like, “Wait a second. How do we harness that energy and now allow him to be free with his words? What does that look like? Run takes and try it again. Then just giving space was very important to me.

Was working with actors an exciting part of this for you, coming from documentaries?

That was massively difficult. [laughs] I remember when we did our first reading, I was so shy because I was like, “Oh my God, they’re all here and everyone’s really nervous,” and I thought, “I’m the director and I’m supposed to make them feel comfortable, but I’m so insecure and uncomfortable myself with what I’m about to step into,” so I just had to be very honest about how I was feeling. I have two boys and I remember I once had a brief conversation with Derek Cianfrance, [who I asked] “Man, how do you do it?” And he goes, “You got to treat them like your kids.” I was just like, “Ah, okay. I’ve got kids,” but then I had to really think about what that meant and just had to approach it from a real deep [place of] compassion.

It sounds like you really empowered them to their best work and bring surprises. From what I hear, all credit for “Pussy Fried Chicken,” a showstopper in the film goes to Nabhaan Rizwan, the actor playing one of Zed’s rap battle rivals.

That’s everything, Stephen. That’s everything to me is that we’re not just meat puppets. I remember I shot some commercials and that can be quite dehumanizing when you make people feel that way, so I don’t have the desire to do that. They have so much to give. Everyone has so much to give. If I’m not in a position to help other people give more, then what am I doing? I’ll go be a writer. There’s enough of that.

What were the rap battles like?

It was fun. We didn’t know what Riz was going to say and how he was going to play it. He didn’t even know what words I had written – I had written that rap against him, and there was a few more hurtful lines that we got good reactions out of Riz, but he’s able to take it. [laughs] And it was tough because it’s also about the extras in the room and making sure that they all are also into it and that they can also add to the experience, [which] I think was tough for some, because it was also one of the first [scenes]. We filmed the hallucinations earlier on and the challenge was amazing because we always knew that we wanted the hallucinations to almost feel more real and less dreamy, and for the world to feel very stationary and stuck. We were finding the language as we were going through it.

Which is so surprising to hear because I imagine the idea of all the different things that collide in the editing, where you see everything that is contributing to Zed’s experience, had to be designed beforehand to hit just right. Did you have a strong idea of what that would look like ahead of time?

I always knew that was something that we were going to do, but it was a question of how and when. Adam Biskupski, the editor, is the genius that found connections and through-lines and I had a strong desire to bring in somebody that has worked with trauma in the sound design — Paul Davies did “You were Never Really Here” and he’s so specific with what sounds he pulled, he was a dream to work with. And Paul Corley, our composer, was so ego-less in such a phenomenal way, he was just like, “Here are the stems [for the music], what do you want to do with it? Run with it.” That allowed us to just keep pushing in such an exciting way. We’d like a sound and we’d use it somewhere else and he’d be like, “Cool. Yeah, I can do more of that.” We did that til the last minute. Then Paul Davies would pull other things. It’s hard to really know where the sound design and the music begin and end because they all just come into it, and those three [together] were so instrumental in the process of building this deeply subjective reality.

“Mogul Mowgli” opens on September 3rd in select theaters, including Film Forum in New York, the Nuart in Los Angeles, and the Embarcadero in San Francisco, among others. A full list of theaters and dates is here.