Interview: ‘Mogul Mowgli’ Actor Alyy Khan On Identity and Diaspora

alyy khan mogul mowgli the serpent

Alyy Khan, the BIFA-nominated actor who recently starred in BBC’s The Serpent and drama film Mogul Mowgli, chats with Gurjinder Khambay.

Mogul Mowgli is a unique film—and perhaps the first I’ve seen that I related to in any sort of way. The directorial feature debut of Bassam Tariq, it explores a narrative that is rarely seen on screens: the South Asian diaspora and all its complexities. We follows Zed (Riz Ahmed), an ambitious rapper, who is debilitated by an autoimmune disease. Meanwhile, he is grappling with his role as a member of the South Asian diaspora, trying to find a place where he can occupy in the duality of cultures without disconnecting his two selves. That disconnect is seen in the relationship between Zed and his father Bashir, played by Alyy Khan. Bashir is the old culture that clashes with Zed’s new culture; their relationship with one another, their expectations and their past is of salient importance to the film. 

I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Alyy Khan and talk about his role in Mogul Mowgli.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Gurjinder Khambay: What drew you to Mogul Mowgli as a project?

Alyy Khan: I had heard great things about Bassam. I hadn’t seen his stuff. Obviously when the script comes, there’s a tendency to find out who’s attached to it, right? So when I read about Bassam, read Bassam’s CV, that interested me. And, obviously, getting a chance to work with Riz. 

GK: Do you think the fact that it was a different type of movie—it was funded very differently, and it was a very collaborative project with the actors—is that part of what drew you to it?

AK: Yes, originally. When the script was offered to me, to be honest I wasn’t too impressed with it. That’s what I said to Bassam and we had a lot of skype meetings—me being in Karachi on set, he being in London. So I think the collaborative nature started pretty early. What tended to happen was that any bits of it that weren’t coming off as true quality, we’d be given the space to try it in a variety of ways. The script started to become very fluid and so whatever sounded right at the moment, whatever felt right, even if it wasn’t the written word, we then went with it.

GK: What did you add to Bashir’s character? Things that you felt improved on Bassam’s vision? 

AK: This was Bassam and Riz’s vision, because they’d written it. I think it was coloured by their elder relatives, so maybe bits of their Dads in it, or their Chachas (uncles), or people from within the folds, their stories, their personal interactions. Those characters were also from an older generation. I kind of fell in between the two age brackets because there was also a bit where you need to see me as a younger person, so I guess it’s harder to age down than it is to age up, as a makeup process. So I fell between that age bracket and I’d like to believe that I brought a certain energy to the character that maybe an older actor would not have brought.

GK: Since you were in between the two characters, was there one you related to more? One who you saw a lot more of yourself in? 

AK: It’s a really interesting time, because my own son is only 15 years old. Which means I’ve only been a dad for 15 years because he’s my eldest child. So I got to draw on my parental experiences—then suddenly being a dad for 30 years, Riz’s father, trying to make that relationship work. Like anything in life, you need to work for a relationship, even a parental relationship or a spousal relationship. So to understand their backstories and see how Bashir left such glaring holes was something that was a bit strange to me, because as a father I would not let that happen now.  I think Bashir pretty much blamed Zed for his failures really. Like, “I’ve sacrificed everything for you to give you the opportunity to live in this first world, you don’t know what I’ve had to go through to actually get you guys here. Now when it’s my turn, you just up and  fly away and leave us?” Coming from that generation. Maybe had their relationship not had those glaring holes, Zed wouldn’t have felt the need to flee. 

Read more: Riz Ahmed Electrifies In ‘Mogul Mowgli’: London Film Festival Review

GK: I think that narrative of “I’ve come here, given everything up for you” plays into that narrative of intergenerational trauma. How do you think the film’s narrative around intergenerational trauma is helpful to South Asians and the diaspora? 

AK: I don’t know, actually. I think COVID pretty much has taught us all the values of being close and respecting what we have left. I think in a weird way it kind of echoes the sentiment. We’ve seen what’s happened to all of us in the past year and I’m sure, while it’s extremely tough for everyone, there’s also lots of positives. So I don’t necessarily see it as intergenerational trauma—I see it more as a kind of chance to learn and pick up from there. It’s an evolutionary process. You’ve got to learn to let go, and you’ve got to respect the change.

GK: Riz Ahmed’s album The Long Goodbye features very heavily in the movie. I wondered if you listened to it before you took on the project or whilst you were working on the movie? 

AK: I didn’t actually. I didn’t. 

GK: Was that a conscious decision you made?

AK: No—I was involved in a project here and it was all a bit rushed, and by the time I got to London, the script itself was so heavy with written lyrics in it that it felt a bit daunting. So I thought to myself, “I’d rather see him perform it and try and understand it rather than try and make head or tail of the angst that’s written in it”. If you try and do that then you’re trying to relate it to the subtext in the narrative that may or may not be there. All his lyrics were written over a different period of time which were all collated and brought under this umbrella.

Alyy Khan as Bashir in Mogul Mowgli
GK: A big part of Mogul Mowgli forces not only Riz’s character, but the audience to re-evaluate their identity. Did it make you re-evaluate any part of your identity and the way you relate to culture too? 

AK: For sure. The good thing about the film is that I think it encompassed race and colour and I think as a narrative piece of work, it makes everyone question their sense of reality. Similarly to me, exactly what I spoke to you about, it made me reevaluate my relationship with my child. There’s always room to rethink. It’s a learning process. Teenagers—everyone said would be daunting, but so far I’ve been blessed. Certainly playing Bashir made me reevaluate the kind of relationship I have with my son. It made me aware of not falling in the pitfalls that maybe Bashir did. 

GK: What do you think those pitfalls were that Bashir fell into? 

AK: Insecurity. Trying to prove something that he wasn’t. Trying to live up to pressures. A major chip on his shoulder. Serious insecurities. I mean, who wants to leave their home? You’ve left your home, friends and relatives and you’ve come to a cold country and you’ve come in search of a better life. It’s not enough. That’s where I think the fracture in the relationship was. It was time for Zed to help the father. I think it was too late because they didn’t share that whilst he was growing up. He wanted to do his own thing. 

GK: Partition plays a big role, with the appearance of Toba Tek Singh and Bashir’s own journey from India to Pakistan. Has any of the narrative of the film made you reevaluate how you view partition and the history around it? 

AK: Again, it’s a generational thing. Growing up, I didn’t have the baggage of parents recounting horror stories of partition, neither did my grandparents. I think for my grandparents the crossing was painful, but not necessarily violent. Heart-wrenching and financially destroying, yes, but I feel like most people had a chance to start anew and start afresh. If anything, I only have extremely fond memories during my childhood. Whilst I’d heard about it, seen the odd movie about it, in this part of the world it wasn’t really that big of a deal. The expats who actually left the subcontinent and moved to other countries—I think it became more of a deal simply because it was also a way to hold on to their past and their legacy. Stories that their parents had told them, they were telling to their kids almost as a cultural and traditional thing. You go and visit a few families in England and it’s almost as if they’ve recreated villages in their part of the world, so it’s that kind of a vibe if you see what I mean. 

GK: Was it difficult for you to capture those emotions because you hadn’t experienced that trauma? Was it difficult for you to inject that into Bashir’s character? 

AK: I think I’ve experienced one moment of, not mob fury, but definitely ethnic worry, so to speak. I was in the riots in Bombay in 1992. It was a Hindu-Muslim flare up and it wasn’t a nice feeling. Funnily enough, I was travelling in a train, along with a bunch of Hindu people who were all my buddies. I felt a little secure because I knew they were around me, but the feeling was unreal. When you have that kind of blatant, inherent, religious prejudice—that’s what I think I brought to the partition trauma aspect. That’s the only way I could understand.

Mogul Mowgli is currently exclusively available on BFI Player Subscription and on Blu-ray by the BFI. The Serpent is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.  

Words and Interview by Gurjinder Khambay

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