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 well-being 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 in London, 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.”
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, before continuing, “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 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.
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