“Roaring with intimate humanity.”Ed Fernandez reviews Mogul Mowgli, out 30 0ctober.
Mogul Mowgli begins with Zed (Riz Ahmed) leaping around the stage in a packed-out New York music venue, delivering an electrifying rap performance to a hype-infused crowd. From this opening scene, Ahmed’s impassioned performance pulls your eyes, effortlessly inhabiting both the energetic highs and the tender, wretched lows of Zed’s arc. Mogul Mowgli is a dramatically and visually rich treat: Ahmed is the engine that powers the story, leaving it roaring with intimate humanity. I was fortunate enough to see the BFI London Film Festival version of the film, which is preceded by an interview with Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq. From this interview it’s clear that this film is a labour of love. It is, in a word, a vulnerable piece of work.
When we first meet Zed, we see a character who has acquired everything he’s ever desired — independence, fame, prowess, and artistic fulfilment. He’s a man on the cusp of becoming who he knows he is, he’s Zed, the worldwide, status-quo challenging rapper, and he’s about to get a world tour to prove it. But Zed is also Zaheer, and Zaheer has problems. Mogul Mowgli tells the story of Zed’s reckoning with that tension, with Zed undertaking the messy process of accepting himself as the flawed, imperfect, and fallible individual he never imagined he could be at the height of his career. The film follows Zed’s return home to his Pakistani family in London, a world and a culture he believes himself to have transcended. Zed’s dreams of a world tour are promptly crushed when he is diagnosed with a degenerative disease that causes his white-blood cells to eat away his muscle tissue.
Zed ends up in a scrap outside his mosque as he sneaks away from prayer to smoke a joint, arguing with a Muslim fan over what counts as a sin and what does not, before collapsing to the ground with the beginnings of his debilitating disease. It’s moments such as this, where Zed’s elevated identity and his cultural roots enter into a complex interplay, that shine in Mogul Mowgli’s script. There are no clean answers here. Should Zed reject or respect his family and their culture? How will these vastly different generations interact? How will Zed, worldwide rapper, relate to his heritage? Part of the underlying allure of the film is its willingness to approach these multifaceted real-world experiences with all the messy ambiguity they deserve. Mogul Mowgli fearlessly inspects a broad range of issues currently pulsing through the cultural sphere – racism, identity, generational conflicts, tradition, modernity, masculinity – with a light touch that grounds them in a profoundly human experience.
Bassam Tariq is as gifted behind the camera as Ahmed is in front of it. Mogul Mowgli boasts a visceral visual texture which weaves Zed’s day to day confinement in hospital with a number of deeply affecting and surreal dream sequences. These dreams – including rap battles, blends of the past and present and encounters with a mysterious masked figure – explore Zed’s inner conflict in vivid, sensorily engaging ways. Zed is as at war with his own mind and identity as he is at war with his bodily condition: Tariq’s cinematic craft realises his confined situation with a palatable equilibrium of heart, humour, and horror. His direction allows Mogul Mowgli’s deeply human story to simultaneously be a rewarding cinematic experience.
Mogul Mowgli is, above all else, the gut-wrenching story of Zed being forced to remember that he is also Zaheer. The story is at once a timeless reversal of fortune and a bold examination of the intersections of culture and identity in an ever-changing world. It’s a brave yet affectionate exploration of the fragility of identity with an equally fragile performance to match.
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