A passion project of rising star Riz Ahmed’s (starring in, co-writing and co-producing the movie), Mogul Mowgli is a tense, beautifully moving piece of independent cinema. Screening as part of the (digitalized) BFI London Film Festival 2020, Mogul Mowgli tells the story of Zed—a British-Pakistani rapper who abandons his traditional upbringing to make it in New York. Having been away for two whole years, Zed returns to his home in Wembley, London, where hostility resurfaces in the typical narrative of a generational culture-clash.
That said, Mogul Mowgli is no Bend It Like Beckham (dir. Gurinder Chadha, 2002). Instead, director Bassam Tariq offers us a bittersweet character study that verges on tragedy rather than comedy. Diving headfirst into the subconscious of our anti-hero, Tariq presents a film of artistic realism, injected with scenes of frenzied imagination. When Zed is unexpectedly diagnosed with a muscle-wasting autoimmune disease, he is plagued by demonic hallucinations of Ghulab Mian—forcing him to acknowledge his cultural heritage.
Tariq’s blend of nightmarish surrealism and gritty drama effortlessly transports viewers from the real to the imaginary; Zed suffers from both his body and mind, and so we are made to do the same. As part of a generation caught between homes – lingering in a purgatory that’s not quite East, not quite West – Zed is tormented by the words “Toba Tek Singh”. Torn apart by the 1947 Partition, Toba Tek Singh acts as a metaphor for Zed’s conflicted identity, having immigrated to England as a child.
Riz Ahmed packs a surprising punch when rapping about his tangled roots, opening the stage to ask “Now where you really from? The question seems simple but the answer’s kinda long.” Dubbing his home “no man’s land”, Zed is forced to tackle the reproaches of his traditional family–bed-bound, unable to run back to the glamour (and distraction) of fame. There’s a certain type of duality that forms between his physical and emotional hurdles; if Zed wishes to heal from one thing, he must also face up to another.
Mogul Mowgli is a quietly powerful refection on immigration, identify and artists trying to find their voice on an overcrowded stage. Captured in that old-school square ratio, Tariq switches between raw, gutsy filmmaking and subtly gorgeous cinematography. Riz Ahmed and Alyy Khan (Zed’s father) deliver tender performances that pull on our heartstrings in spite of their anti-heroic qualities. None of the characters may be morally perfect, but they are honest and humane, giving Mogul Mowgli a true sense of authenticity.