Riz Ahmed has his musical career derailed by the sudden onset of a degenerative disease. The basic premise sounds familiar — the actor plays a similar role in the Oscar-nominated “Sound of Metal” — but “Mogul Mowgli” is a wildly different beast, thanks to both its raw aesthetic approach, and its surreal, occasionally hilarious magnification of diaspora anxieties. Ahmed, who co-wrote the film with director Bassam Tariq, plays a late-blooming, London-born Pakistani rapper with a focus on identity. He’s Zed to his fans, Zaheer to his friends, and Zuzu to his mum (Sudha Bhuchar). Once his career takes off in New York, an autoimmune disease leaves him unable to walk, let alone attend his breakout European tour, and before long, it sends him tumbling down a rabbit-hole of delirium.
Zed’s physical battle coincides with his first trip home in years, and the gap in generational POV is readily apparent. On its surface, it reads like a paint-by-numbers immigrant/first gen culture clash, but the film gets to the root of this familial disconnect in a unique way, revealing a phantasmagorical journey into Zed’s fractured psyche, as a man caught in a simmering culture war with himself.
In a strange masterstroke, the debuting Tariq accomplishes this by applying a lens of realism to formalist designs, as if he were documenting waking dreams. His stripped-down visual approach is matched by Zed’s thread-bare songs, which appear in the form of spoken-word over the mildest hint of a beat. We don’t always hear the music the way Zed’s audience does, though we do hear his lyrics about self-hatred in a multicultural West.
Zed’s slam poems play like an abstract representation of his music, but despite this symbolic premise, he’s filmed in the most literal way, as if by an invisible TV crew. There is always a disconnect in the fabric of the film’s reality, but the inexpensive, analog video look is wielded like a weapon; its clash with haunting images punctuates Tariq’s blend of absurdity and emotional honesty.
Sequences in which Zed spends time with extended family may as well be home videos (the film is shot in 1.33:1, and is littered with actual home videos of a young Ahmed). These scenes come to life through their conversational nuances. You can easily imagine a rote alternate version of “Mogul Mowgli” where Zed yells at oppressive aunties for not understanding rap, but Tariq and Ahmed layer their generational frustrations underneath more personable scenes. Inquiries about Zed’s stage name and what he might name his kids are embedded within friendlier topics, and when Zed’s Muslim mother inquires about his Hindu girlfriend, Bina (Aiysha Hart) — who, unbeknownst to his family, dumped him for his inability to commit — she doesn’t explicitly disapprove, but her tone is subtly dismissive (“Bina-Shina” she calls her; South Asian mother speak for “Bina, or whatever”). Both conversations soon move on, but Zed internalizes their fraying, frustrating effects.
While these lingering clashes seldom blow up into confrontations, they pave the way for what’s to come between Zed and his stern father, Bashir (Alyy Khan). Zed may rap about Indo-Pakistani identity as a first-generation Briton, but he’s disconnected from the colonial reality of India and Pakistan, and what his father experienced when fleeing by train from one to the other during Partition in 1947 (some trains arrived empty or full of corpses; these were later called “ghost trains”). Zed’s old demos are even selfishly recorded over ancient cassettes from these railway journeys; he doesn’t much care for his father’s story, and his father doesn’t care to tell it.
When Zed begins losing feeling in his legs, the film introduces fleeting, impressionistic visions of bloodshed on a train, offering him a dreamlike window into his father’s past. He also begins hallucinating a mysterious, grotesque man in a wedding Sehra — a flower veil that obscures the groom’s face — who taunts Zed, and repeatedly refers to himself as “Toba Tek Singh.” After a while, this name becomes a ritualistic chant, bouncing off the walls of Zed’s subconscious. As the phantom groom re-appears during Zed’s recovery, he becomes a reminder of possibilities just out of reach. Will Zed ever marry? His life-saving stem cell therapy might leave him infertile — will he ever be a father? Both the past, and the future, are murky.
Ahmed exudes a never-before-seen vulnerability, both physically and emotionally. He isn’t the feisty Ruben of “Sound of Metal,” but an older man whose career and family prospects haven’t worked out, and who struggles to hide his bald spots (and eventually, his ailment). He projects aggression, but Tariq unearths his misery and the frustration he turns inward by making him look diminutive in the frame.
Some elements of the story are autobiographical — like Zed, Ahmed is a British Pakistani rapper — but “Mogul Mowgli” is also a critical mirror. In 2020, Ahmed released the track “Toba Tek Singh” and Zed spends his physical therapy trying to conceive of a song just like it. When he searches for a follow-up lyric to “Let the Tec ring,” he doesn’t immediately find it, but the quadrisyllabic rhythm makes it obvious to the audience, who have borne witness to his visions; “Toba Tek Singh!” we want to yell back.
But who, or what, is “Toba Tek Singh”? It’s the answer to a question Zed doesn’t know he’s asking. It’s a city in Punjab, Pakistan, but it’s also the name of a post-Partition Urdu satire by Saadat Hasan Manto, about an asylum inmate who frets over whether his titular hometown is now part of India or Pakistan. A similar schism in identity underscores the film, as Zed wrestles between his ties to Britain, where he was born; Pakistan, where his parents immigrated from; and India, where they lived before Partition; and the violent relationship between the three (the film’s title design, appearing in English, Urdu, and Hindi, evokes this split cultural consciousness).
Partition runs through Zed’s blood — the film cuts between a cupping procedure pulling on his skin and ash rising through a ghost train, as if the violence lives in his veins — but it is not Zed’s story. The generations who experienced it are often tight-lipped about their trauma, and so the event has become a ghost train in the collective South Asian consciousness; it happened within living memory, but it is learned about in history books. This leaves artists like Zed, and Ahmed, in suspended animation; do they talk about a history to which they didn’t bear witness? And if they rap about other issues instead — those more immediately relevant to them, like being randomly searched at airports — does that not pale in comparison to stories like Bashir’s?
Bashir is at once a towering presence in the film, and an element of its backdrop — the way silent, paternal distance often feels. When the frame is focused on Zed’s attempts to walk or to wipe himself, Bashir hovers in its corners, but he soon consumes Zed’s struggle with alternating expressions of overbearing love and anger. Pakistani actor Alyy Khan walks a fine line between a stereotype of a withholding Asian father and the painful nuances of a man burying his past.
Tariq’s paradoxical visual approach culminates in the way he captures Bashir; Khan is only fourteen years older than Ahmed, and the white hair streaks used to turn him into a septuagenarian are noticeably cheap, but this stage-like artifice clashes, perhaps intentionally, with Tariq’s documentarian style. On one hand, it’s a Brechtian reminder of Khan’s prowess, as he projects Bashir’s aged world-weariness through posture and silence. On the other hand, Khan also plays Bashir in flashback sans-makeup, so when he appears in the present, he feels like a man of Zed’s generation. Father and son are uncanny reflections of one another, so their inability to connect is all the more tragic.
Zed also finds a mirror to himself in the form of fellow British Asian artist R.P.G. (Nabhaan Rizwan), a fan of Zed’s set to replace him on the tour. He’s a broad stereotype of a modern rapper: his face is littered with tattoos and his vacuous breakout single is titled “Pussy Fried Chicken.” He represents a clownishness that Zed fears he’ll fall into, if he doesn’t remain true to himself. Although, finding truth is tricky when it depends on a complicated cultural identity.
Rizwan is hysterical in his brief role, and he opens the door to “Mogul Mowgli” juggling humor and indignity in side-splitting fashion — especially during Zed’s trip to a fertility clinic, in which Ahmed pulls off a tonal high-wire act between intensely heartfelt and hilariously pathetic. The balance alone is thrilling, and the humor is a welcome respite after the film gets bogged down by Zed’s physical turmoil for lengthy stretches (Ahmed throws cautions to the wind, but Zed’s spiritual turmoil is far more captivating). These recovery scenes tend to meander, and as the film winds down, its themes seem like they might not fully coalesce. After all, “Mogul Mowgli” is about how parts of Zed’s story may not actually belong to him — and implicitly, to 34-year old Tariq — so it momentarily feels like there may not be much point beyond trepidatious self-critique.
Thankfully, this turns out not to be the case, even though the film takes its time connecting Zed’s anxieties to Bashir’s untold story. Eventually, it reaches something resembling spiritual reconciliation — first, as a farcical vision, and second, as a powerful emotional crescendo. Neither man is able to find the right words, but this is part of why it lands; their desperate search for those words calls back to earlier in the film, and the result is intimate, rousing and emotionally charged in a way few climaxes have been this year.
Strand Releasing releases “Mogul Mowgli” in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 3, with a national rollout to follow.
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