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City Of Tiny Lights

Pete Travis’s City Of Tiny Lights (2016) sees Riz Ahmed playing Tommy Akhtar, a private detective, navigating a Top Boy-esque London as he searches for a missing call girl. Seen through a neo-noir lens, a menacing city bristles with tension as Tommy encounters fundamentalists, shadowy agents and people from his adolescence, prompting him to reflect on past decisions and actions.

Digital illustration of City Of Tiny Lights, Riz Ahmed's Tommy Akhtar.
City Of Tiny Lights, digital illustration by Hamish Mèk Chohan.

As a huge fan of Travis’s treatment of Judge Dredd (2012), the guy knows how to handle grit, stylised cinematography and viciousness without making the violence titillating. You feel the punches rather than root for them. City Of Tiny Lights’ energy is from its matter-of-factness and Ahmed’s enigmatic yet nuanced performance. Whilst some of the conclusions could be called from the setups, I was never bored, and it was a genuine pleasure to watch the machinations unfold in the company of a superb cast. Including genuine hero Roshan Seth, who plays Farzad Akhtar, Tommy’s dad. I highly recommend seeking out Seth in Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala (1991) and Monsoon Wedding (2001), as well as the Neil Biswas written Second Generation (2003).

In a year which also saw Ahmed star in Gareth Edwards's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and Paul Greengrass's Jason Bourne (2016), it’s hard to convey the continued excitement of seeing Ahmed flourish because often it feels so daft explaining to others why representation is important. But more specific to Ahmed, it always feels like we’re watching the choices he makes on his own terms - from Shifty (2008) to Nightcrawler (2014) or Four Lions (2010) to Venom (2018).

This idea of boundaries is something that a lot of artists coming up now can really learn from. If we’re constantly rushing to represent, it disconnects us from our sense of self. It’s something I had to navigate when I was starting out 15 years ago, as one of the only members of the Muslim diaspora appearing in TV dramas and releasing music. It created a tremendous amount of support, but also a lot of pressure and very high expectations. I was acutely aware that any role I inhabited risked becoming an archetype - it’s not like you were going to see ten other Muslim dudes in films that year. But it’s quite liberating to know that you can’t please everyone. At this point in my career, I think a lot less about represent-ing and more about how to be present myself. I think that is what freedom looks like.

Excerpt from Interview, Riz Ahmed And Octavia Spencer On The Burden Of Representation, by Octavia Spencer

Subconsciously I think I chose to watch City Of Tiny Lights after the news of Ahmed’s Oscar nomination for Sound Of Metal (2021), which I am greatly looking forward to seeing. It’s very strange to think the artist of my first iTunes purchase - Riz M.C.'s Post 9/11 Blues - is also the first Muslim to be nominated for an Oscar in the Actor in a Leading Role category. And for the record, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield definitely feel like they’re in the wrong categories, how are the lead actors of Judas And The Black Messiah (2021) in the Actor in a Supporting Role category!? I guess they did something similar for The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007), but I digress.

I return to Travis’s Dredd on a yearly basis and have done so since its release. I will now be doing the same with City Of Tiny Lights and would highly recommend you seek it out.