Riz Ahmed (right) and director Aneil Karia pose with their Oscars for The Long Goodbye. Credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Riz Ahmed: From Wembley to the Oscars

The actor is charting unexplored territory in film, music and activism
May 12, 2022

Amid all the noise about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, there wasn’t much fanfare about the British actor Riz Ahmed picking up an Oscar in the Live Action Short category. The Long Goodbye, which he stars in and co-wrote with director Aneil Karia (pictured, left, with Ahmed), lasts only 12 minutes but packs quite a punch. Filmed in Leatherhead, it begins as a keenly observed portrait of a Muslim family getting ready for a celebration, then moves into dystopic terrain as fascistic police officers round up and shoot non-white residents, before morphing into an otherworldly pop video in which one of the shot Muslims (played by Ahmed) is resurrected and unleashes a defiant rap about living in “no man’s land.”

It’s a lot to absorb. The same could be said of Ahmed’s career to date. Quietly he has developed a startling portfolio that takes in film (everything from Trishna, Michael Winterbottom’s Indian reworking of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), television (he won an Emmy for his performance in the HBO series The Night Of, in which he played a Pakistani-American student accused of murdering a woman in New York), music (he’s a member of the hip hop trio Swet Shop Boys and appeared on the chart-topping Hamilton Mixtape), and writing (he has an essay in Nikesh Shukla’s anthology The Good Immigrant ). He even has his own production company—Left Handed Films—which has a deal with Amazon Studios and supports a fellowship to mentor Muslim filmmakers.

Ahmed was born in Wembley in 1982 and often talks about the vitality of polyethnic London. Asian performers were not unknown when he was growing up: Art Malik in The Jewel in the Crown (1984); Naveen Andrews in the BBC’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1993); Jimi Mistry in East is East (1999)—but none reached the heights expected of them. Ahmed, who recalls as a teenager running downstairs to catch Sanjeev Bhaskar on Goodness Gracious Me, is now—alongside fellow west Londoner Dev Patel—the best-known British Asian actor there’s ever been. Certainly, he’s the most famous British Muslim actor.

In recent years, Ahmed has described himself as an “activist” and even as “a British Muslim socialist creative type.” He has made vigorous use of social media to draw attention to refugee-related campaigns. In 2017, Time magazine included him in its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Whether politics is his forte is another question. A speech he delivered in the Commons the same year was strewn with errors about the history of black and Asian people in Britain, as well as the startling claim that young British Muslims who didn’t see themselves represented in the mainstream would “retreat to fringe narratives, to filter bubbles online and sometimes even off to Syria. In the mind of the ISIS recruit, he’s a version of James Bond, right?”

Ahmed bristles with the eloquent intelligence one might expect from a privately educated Oxford graduate. He studied PPE there—a subject which, according to journalist Andy Beckett, produces “confident, internationalist, intellectually flexible” individuals who believe they “can and should improve Britain and the wider world.” Ahmed has always insisted he was an outsider at Oxford, more in love with club culture than debating societies. Perhaps it’s no accident that one of his most prominent roles was in Mira Nair’s 2013 dramatisation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, in which he played a Pakistani student who turns against the Wasp culture of Princeton and Manhattan finance that he was initially smitten by.

Ahmed has always been happy to discuss his career in relation to post-9/11 politics, Islamophobia and the War on Terror. He has written powerfully about his experiences of being interrogated at airports for the crime of trying to “fly while Muslim.” He was excellent in Four Lions (2010), Chris Morris’s black comedy about British jihadists. At the same time, he’s part of a flourishing, transatlantic desi diaspora in which ethnicity is more ambiguous and fluid than ever. Zayn Malik, Mindy Kaling, Rami Malik—singers work as models, comedians collaborate with rappers, actors turn to directing, South Asia and the Middle East meld.

What next for Ahmed? In spite of its success, I hope he moves away from material like The Long Goodbye. It’s striking, but antiquated: the rap lyrics invoke the footballer John Barnes, while its hysterical depiction of Muslim Britain resembles the apocalyptic clichés of Tucker Carlson. Far better was his Oscar-nominated role as a deaf, heroin-addicted drummer in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal (2019). With his bleached hair, American accent and deft use of sign language, he seemed to be charting unexplored territory. Here’s to him continuing to go off-script.