Following the first screening of “Four Lions” at the Durban International Film Festival a fortnight ago, I found myself in the company of Riz Ahmed, who plays the lead character, Omar.
“Four Lions” is the latest comedic genius of Chris Morris who uses dark humor to explore the lives of four bungling suicide bombers with a mission that goes horribly wrong.
During the Q&A session, Ahmed was warm and witty, welcoming further questions. A request for an interview results in the affable and engaging actor joining my journalist friends and I for dinner.
On the way over, he fires off questions about apartheid and how it’s shaped us as Muslims of Indian origin, as a community in South Africa. At the restaurant alongside Durban’s coastline, Ahmed is fascinated to see bananas being included in the pizza toppings menu. He proclaims he has to try it.
We continue to chat about Indians and Muslims in South Africa and the UK, and what influences identity. 2010 marks the 150-year anniversary of the arrival of Indians in South Africa, and Ahmed is keen to know more. He reveals his insights into what he rightfully perceives to be a fairly affluent Muslim community. I remark that in South Africa, an incident like the July 7 tube bombings in London would never occur, because a large, disenfranchised and disillusioned community of young Muslim males does not exist here.
“In the UK we have those who are politically engaged, but not religious; those who are religious but removed from the political scene (like the role of my brother in ‘Four Lions’) and those who are neither religious nor political, and have nothing to identify with. They’re more likely to be of a lower social background, feel society’s prejudice, and are looking to assert themselves without knowing who they are,” Ahmed responds.
It is his curiosity that’s the first link to Ahmed’s sharply probing and analytical mind. With a degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford, and an MA in drama from the Central School of Speech and Drama, the actor is as relevant as “Four Lions” is irreverent.
He started as an underground musician with his 2006 debut single “Post 9/11 Blues,” before embarking on an acting career. The satirical social commentary rap tune gained media attention for being deemed too controversial to play on national airwaves. Ahmed tells it like it is.
“Israeli fighters are soldiers, Irish are paramilitary
And darkie ones are terrorists — how simple can it be?
Post 9/11 getting around can be expensive
Cost ya 12 dead Iraqis for a liter of unleaded
Post 9/11 I been getting paid
Playing terrorists on telly getting songs made
but will it get airplay geeza
Well, if BBC don’t want it, I’ll send it to Al Jazeera”
Playing terrorists is the stereotypical role Ahmed seems to have fallen into; first with his acting debut in Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantanamo” (based on the Tipton Three: the three Asian lads who were held in Guantanamo without charge, and later released) and now with “Four Lions.”
But he doesn’t feel he’s been typecast, “I had my doubts at the beginning, thinking I’ll always get the typical brown role. But those are just two roles I’ve played.” He pauses to count his other appearances. “Dead Set,” “Britz,” “Shifty,” “Rage” where he acted alongside Jude Law and Judy Dench, and “Centurion.”
The BAFTA winning and Emmy nominated TV mini-series “Britz” did focus though on the subject of home-grown terrorism. Ahmed plays the role of an MI5 agent who spies on his friends and community. “Britz” blames Britain’s anti-terrorism legislation and foreign policy for alienating the Muslim community.
As an actor, he’s been nominated for Best Actor at the 2008 BIFA Awards and won the same award at the Geneva Film Festival for his performance in the title role in Eran Creevy’s BAFTA nominated British feature “Shifty.”
As a musician, he adopts the moniker Riz MC. “’Post 9/11 Blues’ was a reworked draft of something I’d wrote before 2001. So it was there in my head, but just needed an appropriate time to be released.”
In 2009, he signed a two singles record deal for “Radar” and “People Like People” which garnered widespread critical acclaim. His debut album MICroscope, out in 2010, will set him apart as an original voice with a bold musical vision. The album is accompanied by a short film, interactive web game, and a groundbreaking live show also called MICroscope.
On a trip to a children’s after-school center in Umbumbulu, an impoverished rural area near Durban, it’s music which fills the afternoon. Upon arriving, we find a group of teenage girls singing nasheeds in Zulu. They immediately fall silent, save for a few shy giggles. When they hear he’s an actor and musician, there are unabashed squeals of excitement. My first impression of Ahmed was charming, intelligent and unpretentious. It’s these qualities which allow him to interact with these kids, aged four to 18, with ease and without awkwardness.
They are drawn to him too, and soon other kids from the area start arriving, lured by the laughter which rings out beneath a fading African sun. He begins with basic drama improv within a big circle, then divides them into groups. They are tasked with creating their own songs.
He tells them, “When you write a song, you are telling your message to the world, because people will listen and hear what you have to say. So sing about what’s important to you.” These children, who have a basic grasp of English, listen intently, and blow us away with their creative output. The older boys fuse rap and melody to voice their frustrations about crime, and what it is to be a man; while the girls, young and old, find solace in religion.
“Boy, can they rap and sing!” exclaims Ahmed. On the way back to Durban, he’s quiet, and falls into sleep. As we drop him off at his hotel, he turns to my friend who arranged the trip and thanks her.
“Thank you for this afternoon. I wish I could have done more for those kids. I …” He’s understandably emotionally touched into silence. “I’m grateful for being able to visit there. Now I feel like I’ve experienced a bit of Africa, compared to the first world city Durban is.”
As we say our goodbyes, Riz tells us if we are ever in London, we have a friend there. Riz Ahmed, one of the UK’s brightest young talents, grounded and on the way up.
Visit Riz MC’s website at http://rizmc.com/lab/.
Ahmed (right) in a scene from Eran Creevy’s “Shifty.”