A private detective pounding rain-soaked streets; plumes of cigarette smoke twirling in the air; a glamorous femme fatale. These are somewhat familiar tropes when it comes to film noir. But City of Tiny Lights plays it differently. Set in contemporary London, gumshoe Tommy Akhtar (played by Riz Ahmed) is the son of a cricket-loving Pakistani immigrant – which pitches him as a world away from Humphrey Bogart.
Ahmed, who found wider fame as pilot Bodhi Rook in recent Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, immediately sensed the shift. “There’s something familiar and classic about it – you know what you’re getting, that LA Confidential thing,” he says. “But there’s also something fresh about it. That combination of the familiar and the fresh … I guess it worked in Rogue One. It can be an interesting approach to refurbish a classic building.”
Yet the 34-year-old actor is reluctant to label the film a Muslim noir, seeing it as rather reductive. “I think it’s a contemporary British noir. It’s not about [that] being negative, but I think it potentially limits the focus of it, because it’s not just about Muslim characters interacting with each other. It’s a noir with contemporary British characters in it and some of them happen to be Muslim.”
Adapted by Patrick Neate from his own 2005 novel, City of Tiny Lights is simply a reflection of multicultural contemporary London, according to the film’s director, Pete Travis. “That’s what the London I know is like. You have to look a long way in films to find it, and I just think that’s wrong. It’s great that Patrick’s a white, middle-class guy who went to university, and he wrote about an Asian private detective, and wrote it beautifully.”
Travis is particularly critical when it comes to recent portraits of the British capital on film. “I barely recognise it, frankly. It’s either bleak art-house miserabilism or glossy Hollywood silliness – posh people in Notting Hill who can’t decide whether…