“Our scars can be a roadmap to our creativity,” says award-winning actor, musician, and screenwriter Riz Ahmed. In Mogul Mowgli – his and director Bassam Tariq’s recent horror-drama about a British-Pakistani rapper who suffers the sudden onset of a debilitating autoimmune disease – Riz’s protagonist Zed experiences this first hand. The character’s spiral into illness causes him to wrestle with traumas that had been buried within him for decades – traumas both personal and tied to his Pakistani heritage.
It’s no spoiler to say that confronting and processing these painful parts of his and his family’s history ends up leading Zed to a creative resurgence by the end of the film. The same is true when it comes to writing screenplays, the 38-year-old insists. “I think it’s the part of you that you’re most fearful of and insecure about where the best stories lie,” he explains. “There can be something quite scary about not knowing where you fit in and where you belong. But there’s also tremendous potential in that blank canvas.”
Learning to unlock stories by exploring the most difficult parts of your own life wasn’t the only pearl of wisdom about storytelling and screenwriting that the recent Oscar nominee shared during his appearance on my podcast, Script Apart. Here are a few other lessons to be learned from my fascinating conversation with the London-born star...
Search for Inspiration in Science
Stuck for inspiration? One way out is to research real-world scientific theories and concepts that intrigue you, then find dramatic interpretations of them to explore them on screen. “We began digging into the idea of autoimmunity,” Riz recalls of co-writing Mogul Mowgli. “People from ethnic minorities are much more likely to suffer from autoimmune conditions. There’s different theories behind that. One of them is that your ancestors lived in a different climate and had a different diet and that our bodies are still adjusting after thousands of years living in one part of the world. Another is called Minority Stress Theory – this idea that you're in a constant state of paranoia and hypervigilance [that wears your body down] because society's constantly communicating to you that you're part of the other.”
Fascinated by these theories, Riz and Bassam began building a story that brought these ideas to life visually as their starting point for Mogul Mowgli. The same approach could be the spark for your next screenplay.
Jumping Between Genres is Key to Originality
“We sometimes joke that it's a Sufi comedy-horror with a little bit of drama. It has this hybridity to it… a mongrel-hood,” says Riz. He and Bassam purposefully bounced between different genres and tones in writing Mogul Mowgli in search of a unique, unnerving atmosphere – and it works.
His advice is to not be afraid to collide different tones in the same script. If you can do it cohesively, there’s originality in that mishmash approach.
Never Be Afraid to Fall Back on the Basics
There’s a time-tested dramatic formula beneath all the experimentation of Mogul Mowgli. Zed is a character that undergoes “a life-changing event that’s out of [his] control and forces [him] to have a perspective-shift – even if it involves dragging him kicking and screaming by the scruff of their neck to take on that shift in perspective.”
From Finding Dory to Star Wars and The Godfather, the idea of a character whose life is disrupted by a change that forces them to confront the thing they want or fear the most is a staple of cinema for a reason - “it allows the character to go on a journey towards real, lasting change,” says Riz.
Listen above to the full episode (supported by Screencraft) for more insights from the Oscar-nominated star.
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.