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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - MOGUL MOWGLI

mogul mowgli review
On the cusp of his first world tour, a British-Pakistani rapper is struck down by an illness.


Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Bassam Tariq

Starring: Rizwan Ahmed, Nabhaan Rizwan, Aiysha Hart, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Alyy Khan

mogul mowgli poster





Mogul Mowgli is the British-Asian film I’ve wanted to see for a long time. As a member of the Pakistani diaspora, naturally I’ve always sought out English-language films revolved around the community. There’s only been a handful of contemporary ones - East is East, Mischief Night, Catch Me Daddy, Honour, Everywhere and Nowhere, Murdered By My Father etc. - and they're often stories of marriage or honour killings, typically played as either comedy or thriller, and only really show Pakistaniness through language and not much more. Mogul Mowgli is a wonderfully refreshing break from the standard screen image of British Pakistanis.

mogul mowgli review

Directed by Bassam Tariq - his first narrative feature following the great documentaries These Birds Walk and Ghosts of Sugar Land - and co-written by him in collaboration with lead actor Riz Ahmed, this metaphor-heavy drama follows a rapper named Zed (short for Zaheer) who has his world tour plans interrupted by the rapid acceleration of a sudden illness. He returns to his family home after a long two years away and what follows is an intensely visceral odyssey into his psyche. Generational trauma, cultural conflicts and painful memories are unearthed in the dreamscape of Zed’s mind as he spends much of the time recovering in hospital when his body fails him.

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The abstract sequences entail a variety of cultural objects I’m too familiar with. The sounds of famous qawwali and naats (Sweet Madina), the extensive assortment of cassettes and VHS tapes (no doubt recordings of iconic serials), the children's mosque classrooms, even the Illuminati symbol that sits tattooed on the forehead of an edgy fellow Asian rapper - who, by the way, has a song called 'Pussy Fried Chicken' - a conspiracy theory that enveloped the thoughts of many of us Muslim kids because of how it can be interpreted within Islamic theology. It’s all so enjoyably esoteric.

mogul mowgli review

Many of these visual items are a trigger for Zed, none more so than the sight of a large veiled entity called Toba Tek Singh. Toba Tek Singh is the name of a short satirical story written by the legendary writer Saadat Hasan Manto, and it revolves around a mental patient who, when asked where he’s from, says he’s neither from India or Pakistan but a place in the middle called Toba Tek Singh. What the haunting figure represents is something I’ll aim to properly decipher during future viewings - this rich material demands a revisit or two.

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But my initial thought is that it’s a broad reflection on the space that Zed inhabits in between two cultures as the rapper Zed and the man Zaheer. It represents an uncomfortable transition back to his original domesticity, particularly in this unhealthy circumstance, as he tries to maintain his identity. Having bounced back and forth between different places - in turn, different lifestyles - myself, and living through the intense sensory overload of this experience, Zed’s emotional journey really resonated with me.

mogul mowgli review

It may not have hit as hard if Ahmed wasn’t completely in the zone. His performance as the physically deteriorating protagonist is compulsively watchable, and the square aspect ratio zeroes in on the actor’s expression through close-ups. Some may charge the actor with self-indulgence for this stylistic pursuit - like Xavier Dolan spotlighting his dramatic prowess in Tom at the Farm - but I’m not convinced that the film works in any other way. Certainly not with any other lead actor, the majority of whom couldn’t even genuinely rap, as he’s able to.

It’s obviously a very personal story for the star and is clearly an extension of the identity crisis he explored in his album 'The Long Goodbye' earlier this year. In fact, Ahmed transplants his actual songs to his cinematic counterpart, as we see Zed perform the song 'Mogambo' from the outset of the film. The album was explicitly about Brexit through the lens of a toxic relationship, necessitating a split between the artist and a Britain that doesn’t welcome his kind. Mogul Mowgli is even more introspective, an examination of what it means to difficultly balance one’s relatively uncommon ambitions with primal priorities, such as health and a good relationship with parents (Alyy Khan is terrific as the stern yet sensitive father). It’s a universally relatable idea captured through a rare and detailed cultural specificity. And it’s got absolutely nothing to do with arranged marriage or honour killings.

Mogul Mowgli will screen online and in UK cinemas as part of the BFI London Film Festival from October 10th (click here for details). It opens in UK/ROI cinemas on October 30th.




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