Every person who migrates and arrives on the shores of a foreign country is the Moses of his time. Those who have wandered the desert for 40 years live among us. Migration is a constant of the human predicament. The Mayans migrated when their water ran out, the Huns for fresher pastures, the Vikings for the thrill of maritime voyages, and the list goes on. Since the homo-sapiens exodus from Africa, the more things changed, the more they remained the same. A man arrives in a town — a story as old as life itself, yet it keeps repeating.
Space and change of space, within the periphery or outside it, have been of great aesthetic concern to filmmakers. The earliest examples of this fascination can be found in the silent era: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera comes to mind. Recently cinema has increasingly concerned itself with space in a non-literal sense. This newfound figurative approach forgoes the aesthetic nature of the frame and “implies” a change in space instead of showing it directly. The surge and appreciation of diasporic films in Europe, as evidenced by the Palme D’or win of Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan in 2015, is a unique (for the medium) but not entirely unfounded social phenomenon.
It should be noted that a diasporic film is quite different from films where individuals travel to or find themselves in unfamiliar places. In Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the president of a trash channel gets subsumed into the underground world of VHS addiction; in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, three men venture into a wasteland in search of spiritual harmony; in Zvyagintsev’s Return, two brothers take a fateful journey with their father. In these films, and many like them, a path is ventured, a bet is made. Contrary to these, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent finds two men in the throes of the Nazis. The two Soviet men have no control and are guided by the forces unbeknownst to them. They are doomed; their choices merely determine the nature of their demise. The newly fashioned diasporic film goes a step beyond Shepitko’s film by choosing the nature of doom. The journey has been made; the mythical land of Canaan has been found.
This approach is also quite different from Hollywood productions that glamorize “the American dream.” Caper films during the so-called “golden era” sensationalized the life of Italian immigrants from an American perspective. Violence served as a vulgar indulgence for the audience, further distracting them from the root causes of dissent. Then there are films like Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, where we follow the perspective of the immigrants as they navigate the prejudice after arriving at their destination. However, even this perspective tells a half-tale. Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli takes on an ambitious task, telling the tale from both ends of the spectrum.
Riz Ahmed (also the co-writer) plays a rapper, Zed, who cannot reconcile his British life with his Pakistani heritage. The film opens as he raps, “They put their boots on our ground, I’ll put my roots in their ground.” Once again, space is a crucial component. It makes and unmakes identity. And, for consequent generations of immigrants, the two happen simultaneously. When Zed’s girlfriend asks him, “For someone who raps so much about where they are from, when was the last time you went home?” the irony is placed front and center.
Diasporic cinema represents a specific culture (“the origin”) in another part of the world (“the destination”). Especially for films like Persepolis banned in their home country (Iran), the question becomes: who is the intended audience, who is being represented, and as what? If a film questioning the prejudices and flaws of a system is banned in its home country but appreciated globally, who benefits? Additionally, can diasporic films offer any real insight into another culture for inhabitants of “the destination?” And therein lies the problem, while associated with the representation of “the origin,” a diasporic film owes nothing to it. It can be and often is a film about “the destination,” its people, its prejudices, and its social hierarchy. But, like it or not, there are two different ways to approach the subject, especially the question of diasporic identity. One from “the destination” and another from “the origin.”
In the case of Mogul Mowgli, a European will probably (I’m assuming) read the film as a question of national identity. As if in a Cronenberg film, Zed’s confusion of identity materializes in the form of a mysterious disease that confounds doctors, the body and the spirit forming two sides of the British life/Pakistani heritage dichotomy. As Zed visits his parents, speakers blast “Sweet Madina” as a taxi makes its way through a British city. The tension between him and his dad brings further contrast to his persona. Upon arriving, he discovers an old room full of qawwali cassettes. Surfing through them, he scoffs, “crazy, fucking Pakis.” He picks up the cassette and looks at its cover art — a man in traditional South Asian attire with a sehra hiding his face. Soon thereafter, Zed becomes corrupted by visions of the mysterious man. Whether or not it is the curse of Toba Tek Singh — more on that later, that beseeches the ailment forward is open to interpretation.
While a film like Ray’s Pather Panchali dispels the exotic fantasies of a faraway land with its stark realism, Tariq’s film engenders their inherent irony. Tariq and Ahmed — both from a family of immigrants — approach the idea of Pakistan as opposed to Pakistan itself (Tariq spent his childhood in Karachi but moved to the US at a young age). In doing so, they discuss “home” implicitly as an entity that lies beyond; even the film’s title alludes to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The unassailability of the mysterious man that haunts Zed is a perfect metaphor for the unreachable homeland that he has only experienced second-hand. On the other hand, the assumed notion of a “pure British identity” makes him feel like an outlier in the UK.
Now, let us approach the film from “the origin.” The aforementioned Toba Tek Singh is a direct reference to Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story of the same title. Manto’s life was marred with controversy, and his legacy is none too simple. Known for his stinging discourse on South Asian traditions, he was tried thrice before the Indian partition and thrice after it. His story follows a Sikh man in a Pakistani mental asylum shortly after the partition. The average person had been displaced, and a forward-thinking bureaucrat thought lunatics should have been too. In typical Manto fashion, the plot sounds just as absurd as the partition itself.
The Sikh’s birth name was Bashan Singh, but he was known in the madhouse as Toba Tek Singh. He had lost his sense of time but seemed to understand that the country had been divided and was often found reciting gibberish. Pleading with every outsider and even guards, he repeatedly asked whether his hometown of Toba Tek Singh was now in Pakistan or India. On the day of the official exchange across the border, a guard tells him that his hometown is in Pakistan. Refusing to part with his beloved land, he flails his limbs at the officials and lies down in desperation, making their jobs near impossible. Ultimately, he dies in the no-man zone between the two countries.
For Manto, the man becomes the place; for Tariq and Ahmed, the man cannot become the place. The author’s influence shows up on multiple occasions. The scenes of people traveling in trains (presumably from India to the newly founded Pakistan) feed the rhetoric of “the origin” perspective. And then there is the dream sequence of an underground rap battle. In Manto’s story, the Sikh speaks gibberish. Language, the primary source of human communication, breaks down. In Tariq’s film, Zed tries to communicate with language but is wholly misunderstood and ostracized, forcing him to push a mic down his gullet. He can twist words and write rhymes, but even words leave him stranded. Stringing words into verses comes naturally to him but unmaking them proves troublesome. Even his conversation with his parents is bilingual — they speak Urdu, and he responds in English. Basham Singh’s articulation wanes, his communication falters, and he loses his mind. Zed, however, does not lose his mind; he loses his body.
As he lies face down in a hospital bed, his relatives offer hijama services to purify his body. The need for purification extends to every aspect of his physical being. In another scene, he needs to avail of his circumcised sex to store his sperm for posterity. Once again, he fails to escape his identity’s mark on his body. His body threatens to shut down unless he purifies it, so he begins acknowledging and appreciating his roots. As he begins to reconcile with his father — a traditional Pakistani man, the auto-immune illness goes into remission. The illness, then, becomes not an expression of his complex identity but a reckoning with Pakistani identity, “the land of the pure” demanding his blood, sweat, and tears. The disease coerces him to submit to its rigid ideology. From “the origin,” the film seems like a reckoning with the nation-state, not a critique but a resignation.
After observing the diasporic film in two different contexts, one cannot help but think that we are doomed either way, like the Soviet soldiers in The Ascent. One dies a mortal death, the other a spiritual and moral one. Trauma carried across generations and continents is bound to leave something wanting, whether from colonialism and slavery or partition and persecution. Either we lose our minds like Bashan Singh or our bodies like Zed.