Riz Ahmed’s career choices of late have seen him star in everything from the world’s biggest franchise (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) to an impressive indie drama about a drummer going deaf (Sound of Metal, which earned him an Oscar-nomination). Now starring in Mogul Mowgli, Ahmed’s character faces a similar predicament as that of his character in Sound of Metal; here, he’s Zed, an up-and-coming British rapper who’s at risk of losing the success he’s worked so hard to amass when he’s diagnosed with a degenerative autoimmune disease. But this film feels much more personal than Sound of Metal, in no small part because Ahmed earns a writing credit for this one, in which he plays a young man who, like him, is of Pakistani descent. Directed by first-time feature helmer Bassam Tariq, Mogul Mowgli explores Zed’s tumultuous and ever-evolving relationship to his heritage, his art and ultimately his own body.
In a performance he seems meant to play (because, well, he wrote it for himself), Ahmed inhabits Zed effortlessly, particularly in the film’s opening scenes as he’s owning the stage at a night club, spitting verses about the everyday racism and oppression he knows all too well as a brown citizen of the commonwealth. The crowd is totally with him and the energy on screen is nearly palpable. It’s not immediately clear just how popular Zed is, until his manager Vaseem (Anjana Vasan) brings the news that he’s been booked to open on a world tour with one of the biggest names in hip-hop. Finally, the major break Zed’s been working so hard for, for so many years! His tough exterior is pierced ever so slightly at the news; even he can’t deny how big a deal this is.
Having been touring and toiling in the US for years, Zed decides to head home to London for a bit before the tour starts. His parents, doting mother Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) and gentle, but firm father Bashir (Alyy Khan), are thrilled to see him, even if they don’t always understand exactly what he’s doing with his life. Over a big family dinner one evening, it’s clear Zed is living with a foot in two worlds; he’s home, speaking Urdu and eating his mother’s home cooking. But he’s also an artist, a Westerner, someone enmeshed in an industry built on egos and personas. His cousins call him out for his westernization when they note that for someone rapping about his experience as a person of color, he’s a bit hypocritical to have anglicized his own given name, Zaheer. It’s just one example of the many ways Zed tries to navigate the strange blend of worlds he lives in.
All of this comes to a head when Zed’s body starts to betray him, his leg unwilling to move when Zed directs it to. At the hospital, the doctor can only say that he’s suffering from some degenerative disease, that they’ll need to do tests and keep him in the hospital for weeks to sort out a way forward. This, of course, isn’t possible; Zed has a world tour to embark upon, and surely whatever is going on with his muscles can be managed and overcome. His tough exterior is again pierced, but this time it’s due to the gut-wrenching realization that his life is never going to be the same again. The second half of Mogul Mowgli is primarily concerned with this realization and its ripple effects, both within Zed and with those who love him. The film’s strongest moments are those when Zed and his father interact around Zed’s limited mobility; the two of them come closer, physically and otherwise, than they likely ever have, and while each is instinctively driven by their inherent masculinity, their vulnerability with each other is striking.
As Zed comes to terms with his fate, that there is no “quick fix” to this one and no way he’s going out on that world tour, he begins to unearth a mountain of unresolved trauma, and filmmaker Tariq deftly juggles the reality of Zed’s lived experience with his flashbacks and hallucinations. He’s recalling tragic moments on a train, a particularly humiliating rap battle with a Black kid; and he keeps seeing an odd figure taunting him with a chant of “Toba Tek Singh.” A quick search for those not familiar and one discovers this is the title of a well-known fable in India and Pakistan, about a man who’s set to be sent back home only to find that his Indian home is now in Pakistan, a place he refuses to go. Instead, he lays down in a “no man’s land,” unable to be at home in either place. It’s a fitting theme to Mogul Mowgli, a story rooted in a search for identity, both as a brown rapper in Britain and as a man losing control of his own body.
Mogul Mowgli is now playing in theaters.
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