Mogul Mowgli (2020)
Director: Bassam Tariq
Screenwriters: Riz Ahmed, Bassam Tariq
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Anjana Vasan, Aiysha Hart, Kiran Sonia Siwar, Nabhaan Rizwan
Throughout his duel careers in both acting and music, Riz Ahmed has proven himself capable of spitting straight fire. Inspired by rap, jungle, hip-hop and house, Ahmed’s solo albums, such as his 2020 release “The Long Goodbye”, alongside his work as MC Riz in the hip-hop group, Swet Shop Boys, speak to the actor’s abilities as a lyrical wordsmith. Ahmed’s love of music often bleeds into his acting work, with his rendition of Twista’s quickfire verses from mega-bop “Slow Jamz” – performed in the final season of Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ – being the most memorable on-screen demonstration of his sharp tongue. Ahmed most often uses music to explore racial identity and Britain’s ingrained Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric; frequently using the same satirical stand-point of his 2010 film, Four Lions, to highlight themes of racial injustice and profiling—issues that only continue to flourish in post-Brexit Britain. It is, then, unsurprising to see Ahmed allow music to once again weave itself into the fabric of his work as an actor in 2020 BFI London Film Festival release Mogul Mowgli.
Co-written and co-produced by Ahmed, alongside debut feature director Bassam Tariq, Mogul Mowgli speaks to the pair’s shared experience as British citizens with Pakistani heritage. The film is a deeply personal piece, sharply touching upon the internal struggles and anxieties that come with cultural displacement. The shared passion-project uses the familiarity of music, and the experience of performing and engaging with a genre consumed in modern-day Americana, as a tool to access themes of cultural appropriation, othering, and dissociation with the cultural practices that are interwoven into the very existence of immigrant families.
The narrative follows Zaheer Anwar (Riz Ahmed), a young rap performer who typically shortens his name to ‘Zed’, much to the dislike of his family who see much of his entanglement in Western culture as Haram (forbidden by Islamic Law): ‘Americans have got into your head’ comments a concerned family member, only half mockingly. Zed is on the cusp of international fame as a rapper, performing under the stage name MC Zed. With a week to spare before he embarks on a life-changing tour as the opening act for Dante Smith, Zed decides to travel back to his home town of Wembley to reconnect with his parents following a two-year absence. Once there, the young man who we have seen radiate confidence via onstage performances and egotistical Insta-Stories retreats into himself, seemingly unable to place himself in the cluttered rooms of his family home. An altercation with a boundary-pushing fan leads to a fight, the aftermath of which lands Zed in the hospital where Doctors quickly identify an aggressive autoimmune disease. Rapidly robbed of his strength and movement, Zed faces an experimental drug trial and a stint in hospital that will force him to cancel his tour and face the prospect of life at home with his estranged family.
The meat of story rests on Zed’s internal struggles with his identity; with Zed pulled in conflicting directions by his desire to connect with his family and his dreams of achieving success in an industry they do not understand. Now dependent on his family for care, Zed has nowhere to run to escape the pressing disappointment of those he loves; especially that of his Father who holds religion and tradition close to his heart. In sequences of magical realism, we see Zed plagued by a mythical Eastern figure who speaks of Toba Tek Singh (the British Empire’s division of India in the 1947 Partition). The figure serves as a manifestation of all Zed’s anxieties as somebody internally divided by a seemingly vast generational gap. This confliction is less prominent in Zed’s reality, but still often reveals itself: when Zed’s parents speak to him in their native tongue, and despite being fluent enough to understand their every word, Zed always answers them in English. We see the control that Zed yearns for start to slip away, with even his own body stripping him of the autonomy he clings to: “Your body doesn’t recognise itself’ a Doctor explains, outlining how Zed’s body is attacking itself. Down to his very D.N.A, Zed is conflicted, unsure of who he is, or who he should be inside his own skin. Zed’s body serves as a battleground upon which the anxieties of children of immigrants play out, examining how they are divided by the politics that both invite and discourage them from participating with both Eastern and Western cultures.
At times, Mogul Mowgli appears self-indulgent, resting too heavily on the specific interests of its creators, and too often sinking into the grainy aesthetics of dream imagery. The sterile interiors of the undeniably British hospital environment, matched with the hauntingly stark silences and intensely cold sound design of Paul Corey, make many striking moments inaccessible and difficult to engage with. Zed himself is often a hard sell: ‘Where I’m going I don’t need love’ he chants to himself, not looking for fulfilment in the love and affection of others. Yet, although challenging to connect with, this type of self-indulgence may be a function of the story, serving to highlight the disconnect Zed feels in regards to his cultural identity. Or perhaps, even speaking to the selfishness of Westernised society: members of which infrequently give pause to the feelings and opinions of others.
Although there is a coldness to the film, it is often juxtaposed with extreme tenderness, captured most strikingly in a blend of Annika Summerson’s up-close cinematography and Hazel Baillie and Adam Biskupski’s fast-paced editing. Scenes in which Zed and his father pray together are cut with magnified imagery of the stitching of their clothing, highlighting just how interwoven their faith is in their identity. Clothes are how we choose to present ourselves to the world, a visible expression of how we want others to view us, and how we understand ourselves. Here, Tariq suggests that religion, culture and tradition are also an expression of how many choose to reveal themselves to the world. Surprising for a film so dictated by these themes, comedy also litters Mogul Mowgli, with sharp quips and comical dialogue speaking to the everyday observations of a Pakistani family: ‘Everyone is into Tumeric now, init’ says a young family member.
Ahmed’s performance is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the film. Despite starting out as prickly figure, his sudden transformation from confident, cock-sure rapper, to a mild, soft-spoken, anxiety-riddled young-man, gives the film its emotional crux. Ahmed’s flourishing emotional range, alongside his poetic lyrical genius, creates an electrifying story of twenty-first-century selfhood. The voice of urgency and universality to the issues raised in Mogul Mowgli is precisely the kind of resistance we need to hear against the ignorance and racism of those who refuse to acknowledge the experiences of Britain’s Asian community.
Mogul Mowgli plays with the language of film; its rhythm as smooth and sharp as MC Zed’s slick bars.