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Riz Ahmed: Breaking All Stereotypes

Riz Ahmed’s Oscar nomination alone marks new beginnings. Not least because his character has nothing to do with his own culture, religion, country of origin, or, indeed, the color of his skin.

By Haya Fatima Sehgal
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(Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, Wikimedia Commons)

Riz Ahmed did not take home the Oscar this year. But what has occurred is a cultural shift which has left many with immensely positive feelings that perceptions might be changing for the Muslim and Asian world. Riz Ahmed, a British-Pakistani Muslim actor and rapper made headlines by being nominated for the Oscars for the lead role in the movie ‘Sound of Metal’.  Although Ahmed did not win (Sir Anthony Hopkins won for his role in ‘The Father’), he becomes the first Muslim and Pakistani origin person to have received an Oscar nomination for best actor in history.

The movie focuses on Ruben (played by Ahmed), an ex-addict who unexpectedly loses his hearing and must choose between adapting to his new deaf community and the life of a musician that he used to live. Riz Ahmed has played an atypical role in the movie as it is much different than the portrayals that have been enforced in the past on Muslim or Asian actors.

Directed by Darius Marder, the movie was apparently filmed in just twenty-six days. Besides being nominated for several categories at the Oscars, ‘Sound of Metal’ has also won the Golden Eye Award for the best film at the Zurich Film Festival. The movie was also nominated at the BAFTAs (the British Film Academy awards). Born in North London to Pakistani parents, Ahmed’s career in acting started when he was a teenager. He won a scholarship to private school and graduated from Oxford University after studying politics, philosophy and economics.

For his past performances he has received nominations for the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Bafta, Critics Choices as well as the Independent Spirit Awards where he won for lead actor this year. He has appeared in blockbuster franchises for Disney and Marvel while also working for independent movies such as ‘Sound of Metal’. Ahmed is also the first Muslim and Pakistani to win an Emmy award for the lead actor in 2017.

A recent discussion between Riz Ahmed and Steven Yeun (both Oscar nominees) on Vanity Fair online was picked up where Ahmed was very open in maintaining how stereotypical portrayals of Asians are. Both of them have spoken about being careful in their careers and about being demarcated into portraying these cultural cliches.

There have also been criticisms on the cliche which is to usually portray Muslims as terrorists or something negative or even as memes. The systemic recurrent vilification has disappointed millions of Muslims across the world who are aware of this profiling. This has also translated into Muslim and Asian actors to be assigned such roles as only affiliated with their origins constricting the scope for their growth in the industry. All this has disconnected the general populace from the reality that there is a world beyond the borders of the lens portrayed in the entertainment industry. Mainstream cinema undoubtedly affects and influences viewpoints about cultural aspects.

Riz Ahmed not winning was of course a bit of a disappointment. However, the role he played has transcended the barrier of stereotypes creating a dynamic shift. Pakistan also, as a country, in the past has been noted to have stories related to them that have held a negative association. Previously, Pakistan as a country, in entertainment has been popularly depicted only from a limited viewpoint of where supposedly only bad things happen. No attempt has been made to portray the cities, the educated people, the businesses, the beauty of the culture or the progress. The depiction of rural scenes with highlighting extreme issues or problems as a representation has usually been a common take.

Riz Ahmed’s nomination alone is the mark of something new. The role he portrayed in this film was without an affiliation with his own culture, origin, or the color of his skin. Here he was simply an actor focused on portraying a role and bringing the story to life with his talent. This not only shows the breaking down of the barrier of stereotypical roles for actors from different backgrounds but also the shifting lens in the culture of Western film-making and the industry.

The writer is known for her articles on Cultural Impact.

This article was first printed in the Daily Times. Click here to go to the original.

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