Riz Ahmed and his journey to Englistan

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Riz Ahmed, the outspoken British-Pakistani actor who is also a rapper and goes by the moniker of Riz MC (and is a member of Swet Shop Boys) has a lot on his plate including superhero films (Marvel’s Venom), high profile films (The Sisters Brothers) but these days his focus is on starring in Englistan, a nine-part mini-series for BBC Two, which he has written as well.

Riz has been working in television and films for years but his claim to fame was HBO’s outstanding mini-series The Night Of, which put Riz on the world map and the cover of Time Magazine.

The irony is the series was almost called off due to the death of James Gandolfini, whose role in the series eventually went to John Turturro. The Night Of made Riz Ahmed a star overnight, the success of which led to roles in films like Rogue One (a Star Wars film) and the latest Jason Bourne movie.

Englistan, the mini-series from the actor could be special because Riz is channeling the actor and writer in him into it.

Talking to BBC Two in an interview that arrives today, Riz spoke about some of the influences that have gone into the series.

“I definitely grew up code-switching, as they call it here in America, or as I thought of it, kind of being a chameleon. I remember having conversations with my brother and close friends saying ‘Isn’t it weird that we switch so much from one place to another?’”

He added: “Those switches, for me, were from a traditional Pakistani household, humble background, to a private school that I’d got a government-assisted place to attend, that was predominantly white middle-class culture. And then I’d be bunking off school to hang out with my mates who were Pakistani rude boys.”“You would change the way you speak, the words you would use; I was quite literally changing costumes. I might be in a shalwar kameez at home, then wear a blazer and tie at school and then I’d take my Reebok Classics and Firetrap jacket and fake Moschino jeans and then change into them to go and hang out with the mates.”

Success in the US doesn’t mean Riz has forgotten his English roots. Englistan, his mini-series for BBC Two is the multi-generational story of Latifs, a British Pakistani family. No air date for the upcoming mini-series has been announced but it is said that it will air late 2018 or early next year.

Speaking about it, said the actor and rapper: “It just occurred to me, you just haven’t seen the last 30 or 40 years of British history from the perspective of a brown immigrant family. There’s a similar percentage of the American population that are Italian-American as the British population is British-Asian. And if you think how central the Italian-American story has been in popular culture, especially cinema, and you look at the near complete absence of that in British film and TV, it’s frustrating.”

When asked what the story of Englistan meant to him, Riz noted: “Englistan just means England in Urdu or Hindi. But it also communicates something, which is this idea of re-purposing the flag, stretching the flag so it’s big enough to embrace all of us. I think that’s part of what I’d like to do with my work, to contribute to this idea of stretching the idea of Britishness and of Asianness…I think that’s what we’re all engaged in, taking these labels we’ve all inherited, trying to stretch these necklaces we’ve been handed down and wear round our necks.”

With a great understanding of what it means to be from two vastly different cultures, Riz doesn’t try to hide his identity but seems more in search of it. Being from an immigrant Pakistani family, living in the United Kingdom certainly has not landed him plump roles until recently but now that he’s in the limelight, it looks like if anyone has a handle on it, it’s Riz Ahmed.

– Riz’s interview with BBC Two is available to hear on BBC’s website.

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