Is he an actor? A rapper? A producer? A poet? Well, last year, he was all. Presently nominated for Best Actor for The Sound of Metal for The Oscars 2021! His wounded eyes and husky voice have charmed us through the years. Get to know Riz aka Rizwan Ahmed aka Riz Mc’s journey to the top.
The year 2020 changed the world as we knew it. While most people sat bewildered, locked up in their homes, Riz Ahmed was busy. During the first COVID lockdown, Riz released two of his films, a solo album and co-produced a Sundance winning documentary!!!
So it is no surprise that this year revealed itself to be Riz Ahmed’s moment. And we are just witnessing it. But his stardom was years in the making. How? Let’s find out !
The Humble Beginnings
‘I’m a terrorist, and you’re the Kung Fu master’Riz Ahmed
This was Riz, in the recent Variety’s Actors on Actors conversation with his fellow Oscars Best actor’s nominee Steven Yeun (Minari). Both Asian actors talked about the time they were stereotyped by Hollywood.
When Four Lions (2010) released to both critical and commercial acclaim, Riz took it upon himself to add nuance in the limited variety of roles offered to him, lending depth to every man he portrayed. The film was a ‘jihadi comedy’, turning the ‘terrorist South Asian’ trope on its head by acerbic wit. Riz plays an aspiring Al Qaeda mujahid, Omar, but the brilliant screenplay by Jesse Armstrong (yes, the same guy who would go on to write HBO’s Succession), humanized him. Think of it as a Tere Bin Laden but with a rueful ending that will make you tear up. And this will not be the last time Riz would be shredding our hearts with his performance.
The Star In The Making
‘If you are the child of an immigrant, you relate to the alien’Riz Ahmed, on his favorite film ET
Trapped between mainstream Hollywood’s caricature-ization of his race, and his ambition to portray more sensitive roles, Riz’s next few years in the film industry saw him play around with the kind of films that landed on his plate. Of course, almost all of them were Indie films (Hollywood studios were yet to take note of his brilliance), but gave us some of the finest (and creepiest) acting from Ahmed.
Trishna (2011) had him star opposite Frieda Pinto (the international star at the time, fresh from her Slumdog Millionaire success). The film was an adaptation of the classic English novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Riz plays the nice guy from hell – Jay – in this tragic love story set against the majestic backdrop of Rajasthan. The ending would leave you in tatters but for once, you will be glad to see Riz’s Jay suffer on screen.
His foray back into so-called ‘terrorist roles’ had a good reason. The movie aimed to evoke a conversation between US and Pakistan when there was only animosity and stereotypes. We also saw Riz deliver some stellar Urdu lines (including Iqbal’s poetry) with the cadence of a native speaker. The film was a critical and commercial slump but Riz truly became the South Asian actor to look out for. His open letter to the Guardian, about the ‘thorough frisking’ he receives at JFK and Heathrow Airports because of his Muslim name had the makings of a vocal activist he would later become.
The only reason acting is even possible is because inside each of us, is all of usRiz Ahmed
Soon, he would be seen opposite another A-List Hollywood actor, Jake Gyllenhaal in The Night Crawler (2014) beating a hundred or so actors (according to the director Dan Gilroy) to land a supporting role as Rick, a homeless LA man. He looks like a puppy in the film (true to his character), just lost and waiting to be swallowed by a fox in the dead of night. Riz went on to interview Skid Row residents (yup, the same district from the recent Cecil Hotel documentary) for the role. His self-proclaimed love for interviewing people for a role would continue – something he loves most about being an actor. This may be his breakout role, but then the actor would break out a few more times before dominating this year’s award season.
This role was followed by another supporting role in Jason Bourne (2014). Our boy had finally made inroads (albeit as a supporting actor) into echelons of Hollywood studio productions. Things would only go uphill from here.
The Night Of The Star
‘No one is inherently good, bad, inherently evil or saintly. People are just molded by their circumstances’Riz Ahmed
Every great actor has one career-defining role in his oeuvre. I feel the role of Nasir (Naz) Khan in 2016’s best television show, HBO’s The Night Of, was written for Riz. Yet again, he had us wondering, ‘did he or didn’t he?’. The man had turned his own stereo-typification on its head, playing the role of a naive young Pakistani American boy whose gruesome yet inevitable transformation at Rikers Island prison, had all the markings of an Emmy-winning arc. All the ethnic asterisk marks we are talking about now, were checked off when, at the 2017 Emmy awards, he became the first Muslim actor to win Best Actor in a limited drama series, beating the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert De Niro. Hollywood’s big budget productions followed soon.
With Venom (2018) and Star Wars Rogue One (2016), Riz Ahmed accomplished what no other Asian actor (let alone a British Pakistani) ever could. No longer a terrorist or bad guy, he was traversing ethnic lines to emerge as an example of what representation could do for Hollywood long before Netflix and other streaming services realized the economic gains of diversity. He sealed his legacy as a bankable Hollywood star despite his skin color.
RIZ MC, The Poet
‘This is what British looks like’Riz on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Finally, an identity had come full circle. His struggles with discriminatory and often traumatic British South Asian experience made way for some truly revolutionary rap music. He started rapping right from his Oxford days and continued throughout his Hollywood ascent. In a way, the edgy music provided a channel to emote more provocatively, more personally and more raggedly, the anger and hurt of a young man at crossroads with his identity. His stream-of-consciousness rap challenges the listener to pay attention.
One of the higher callings of art is to engage with issues of our time and try and add naunce and humility to thoseRiz Ahmed
He started rapping with his band, the Sweat Shop Boys but moved on as a solo artist giving us acrid commentary on everything from terrorism to Brexit. Perhaps his latest album, The Long Goodbye (2020) is Riz Ahmed at his most vulnerable. Do watch this one short film in the biting hip hop album that will shatter you with its not-so-unbelievable dystopian nightmare left for Muslims in post-Brexit Britain. His voice underscores the brutal racism as the camera trembles with rage. The artist has laid his soul bare with this gem of an album.
A Star Is Born
‘Deafness isn’t a disability, it’s a culture’Riz Ahmed
With the Sound of Metal (2019), Riz Ahmed went back to his Indie roots, doing what he had been doing for close to 17 years and took on a role which was immersive and demanded the world from him. Months worth of American Sign Language and drums training led to a well deserved Oscar nomination. A socially conscious actor has finally earned his place amongst the greats. When Ruben Stone, in the final scene of the film, takes out his cochlear implants and embraces the silence around him, I felt like this is what Riz must have felt when his performance was getting the rave it did: Just pure bliss and calm that follows a long struggle. He broke away from his ethnicity, and just played a human. Ruben‘s skin color is covered in tattoos after all. He was always here, but now he was here the way he wanted to be.
But 2020 also gave us another glimpse of the chaos within him with his home production- Mogul Mowgli -co written with the legendary Bassan Tariq. The film is a cine-scape of a man’s conflict with himself, with his dual identity, with his religion. Somehow, he shot part of the film in Pakistan, and it’s unfortunate the film had a limited theatrical release only in the UK.
Riz Ahmed also produced an amazingly poignant documentary Flee (2021) which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize in the Word documentary section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It details the journey of an Afghan refugee in a form-breaking manner, combining hand-drawn animation with memory narrative. Are we seeing a pattern here? His advocacy for Rohingya and Syrian refugee crises now extending to his art? Maybe. But then, his art was always layered with activism. All we know is that Riz Ahmed is the storyteller of our times. He may have needed this moment, but it is more likely that this moment needed him.
It’s not like you choose politics. If you are born into certain body, in a certain place and time, politics chooses youRiz Ahmed
The Golden Globes also took place a while back, check out the top wins and moments.
Maleeha is based in Lahore and pursuing a bachelor’s degree. She snacks on books, films, cookies and anything artistic under the Lahori hot sun. Her ultimate goal is to get a room of her own and a fixed annual income in her name (as per Virginia Wolf’s recommendation) to write forever, without falling prey to capitalist trappings. You can follow more of her ramblings on Instagram and twitter