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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Riz Ahmed: “We Have To Step Up and Make Progress Happen”

Riz Ahmed is a name that is synonymous with the global representation of South-Asians Artists in the West.

In an inspiring journey that spans from London to America, he has made strides in the fields of acting and Hip-Hop/Rap music. Initially worked in numerous independent works like Four Lions Trishna, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

But post his breakthrough in Nightcrawler, we’ve seen him play pivotal roles in mainstream Hollywood movies like Jason Bourne, Star Wars: Rogue One and Venom.

In his career thus far, he has won a Primetime Emmy Award and London Film Critics’ Circle Award, two Golden Globe Awards, two Emmy Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and three British Independent Film Awards.

However, in 2021, he has become the first British-Asian Muslim to be nominated for an Oscar in the ‘Leading Actor’ category for the film Sound Of Metal.

At a special media interaction with the British Asian press, Riz opens up on his craft, vision and what it means to be nominated at this stage of his career.

He tells Filme Shilmy: “It means the world to me have the film get recognised with these nominations. On a personal level, it’s encouraging to be nominated.

In terms of what can be better for opportunities of South-Asians in the West, progress is happening. No one can deny that – especially if you saw with the BAFTA nominations. There is still further to go. The work isn’t done yet.”

His achievement is undoubtedly monumental and a major game-changer. With regards to his iconic nomination, Riz says:

“It takes a lot of hard work and doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of overcoming self-doubt. It takes people before you to pave the way.

There are generations of people who have paved the way for me to be in this very lucky position. It’s important to not just think about individual effort but how people have paved the way for us and we should do the same.”

Life does not solely revolve around receiving awards, but an Oscar nomination is a recognition of another scale. However, for Riz, his sole focus is work and work only. He describes:

“I’ve learnt that you can’t predict which way your career will go. You can only control the work you put in. That’s what my focus is. I don’t want to take my foot off the peddle, but to go further.

Hopefully, it’s an opportunity to take that encouragement and decide which direction to go in next.”

Sound Of Metal is a profound and poignant story about a heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.

Riz plays a character that is not of any South-Asian background and carries it off with conviction, in a compelling manner.

Opening upon his experience of playing Ruben Stone, he tells the media:

“Progress doesn’t come round waiting for it. I think we have to step up and take it. The progress I make is built on the people before – especially figures like Art Malik, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Irrfan Khan, etc.

So progress comes from a team effort over a longer period of time. Individually, if you are moved to tell a story, you have to step up and tell it.

You don’t just see it as an opportunity for an actor but tell that story because it needs to be told. There are so many stories in our community that haven’t been told yet in the mainstream – which is something I’m trying to do more of.”

As the character suffers from hearing impairment, one gets to watch the 38-year-old actor communicate in American sign language and develop an understanding of the hearing impaired community.

This image released by Amazon Studios shows Riz Ahmed in a scene from “Sound of Metal.” (Amazon Studios via AP)

He shares with the media: “It was challenging on many levels. It’s learning a new language that’s different to verbal language because you’re engaging with a different part of your brain.

It’s a visual language, and deaf children – the hearing parts of their brain are getting repurposed towards visual functions.

So it’s really about almost trying to re-wire your brain a little bit learning sign language.

Having said that, despite all of the challenges it was one of the most amazing gifts of my life because it’s a really beautiful language.

My signers tried to tell me that hearing people are emotionally repressed compared to deaf people – and I thought ‘Woah, what’s he talking about?’

And when I started learning American sign language I realised that that’s true because we hide behind words, and when you communicate with sign language you actually feel a lot more emotional.

I might be able to talk to you about my mum right now and just use words and we would just have a normal chat.

But if I start doing it in sign language I might find myself with tears entering my eyes, and that’s because there is something very deep about communicating with your body, and you’re really embodying everything you’re saying.

So I learned a lot from the deaf community, and I’m so grateful to them. I learned a lot from them as a full-hearing being and as an actor.”

Both of Riz’s recent films – Mogul Mowgli and Sound Of Metal share common stories about a promising musical career that is abruptly disturbed by a medical emergency. 

So were these themes something Ahmed consciously looks out for? He tells Filme Shilmy: 

“I’ve always been interested in how art and identity relate to one on another. Sometimes our identity shapes our art and it can also be vice-versa. So when you make certain kinds of work, it allows you to think about yourself differently.

I was kind of thinking about these things when I was developing Mogul Mowgli. To be honest, the similarity, thematically between the two films isn’t something I planned.

Sound Of Metal was just a great script and I jumped at the opportunity. That’s how Darius Marder (director of the film) and I connected because we are both interested in how stories have to come from a personal place.

There’s something strange about a health crisis throwing someone’s life off track and have to reconsider what really matters.

We’ve all been going through that right now with COVID-19 and it’s crazy in a way to have done these films that have coincided with a time where people can relate with that experience.”

Whilst Riz Ahmed’s achievement is a major milestone, there are still several creatives who are to get their opportunity to display their work and make a difference. 

He offers real advice to those who are yet to be discovered by gatekeepers within the industry and implores creatives who don’t have the support of the industry. He tells the media: 

“It’s really difficult because it has to come from both the influential people in the industry and people like me – who argue for that space to be made. Sometimes you have to be given that first chance in order to get better.

The responsibility of those who want to break into the industry is unfortunately to work twice as hard to get half as far. You have to be undeniable.

Throwing something together and getting it out there isn’t going to cut it. It’s unfair sometimes when that might be enough for someone of a different background or connections.

That’s the reality of life. You just have to be better and be willing to work harder. The only thing best to focus on is what is in your control.

As a writer, if there’s an undeniable script, you’ve done your bit well. Then it’s also the responsibility of gatekeepers to make space for that.”

Having prominent figures like Riz Ahmed, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Mindy Kaling (to name a few) pave the way for South Asians in Hollywood and the Western entertainment industry is a major beacon of change.

With Ahmed’s nomination at this year’s Oscars, it shows that change is happening… Gradually, but surely.

However, the battle for equal representation in our community has only just begun. 

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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