One of the wonderful things about cinema is its ability take you to another world. Fantasy, other sides of our own planet – anywhere outside of our own experience. But that other world is just as likely to be under your own nose and, while we’re justly proud of our multi-culturalism in the UK, it’s easy to know very little about the social demands/conventions and cultures that go with its different ethnicities. Even when it involves families who made their homes here several generations ago.
It’s the setting for Bassam Tariq’s debut feature Mogul Mowgli, which also gets a cinema release at the end of this month. Brought up in a British-Pakistani family, Zed’s (Riz Ahmed) ambition to be a rapper has taken him away across The Pond. The opportunity he’s been waiting for, a world tour, presents itself, but beforehand he pays a visit to his parents in London. It soon becomes clear that his health is declining and he’s diagnosed with an auto-immune condition. His life has hit a brick wall: his dreams and ambitions are gone, he’s a shadow of his former self and even his parents can’t agree on the treatment he should receive.
His illness is just one aspect of the story, a physical manifestation of the pressures bearing down on him from different directions. A major one is cultural, be it from his political style of rap, or his heritage which goes back to the days of partition and the traditional beliefs and attitudes represented by his father, which are completely at odds with his own. He struggles to find a world where he’s truly at home: the music business is fiercely competitive, the UK is equally alien because he’s been away for so long. They all take their toll on him and there’s never a moment in the film when you feel he’s genuinely happy or has found a place where he truly feels he belongs.
Co-written by Tariq and Ahmed, it’s a film that places just as much emphasis on images and sound design as the dialogue and the words so central to Zed’s own art. The combination of his real experiences and the hallucinations and dreams that become increasingly prevalent as his disease takes hold and he sees his dreams dissolving in front of his eyes all create powerful, striking and sometimes disturbing sequences. The noise – the crowds at his concerts, family parties – is deafening at times, but counterbalanced with a silence that’s an almost equal assault on your ears: it doesn’t denote peace, more an intensifying of the tension inside him.
It’s a physical performance from Ahmed, not just when he’s in front of a crowd but also as his legs start to fail him and he finds even the simplest of tasks close to impossible. Emotionally, he’s more understated, adding to the power of the moment when he makes the longest walk of his life – down the hospital corridor from his room to the lift. Mogul Mowgli is a film full of challenges, for its characters and the audience. None are easy or comfortable, but they make for questions that are guaranteed to keep you thinking afterwards.
Drama | Cert: tbc | BFI Distribution | London Film Festival, 10 and 13 October. In cinemas 30 October 2020 | Dir. Bassam Tariq | Riz Ahmed, Aiysha Hart, Sudha Bhuchar, Alyy Khan.