Mogul Mowgli [Reel Asian Film Festival 2020]

Mogul Mowgli feels like a rap concert. Sweaty, uncomfortable, electric and loud- in all the best ways. Riz Ahmed and Bassam Tariq’s joint venture tackles intergenerational trauma and the legacy it leaves through the eyes of an artist on the rise.

Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper who’s about to hit it big. He’s brash with all the bravado, in both rhymes and personality. And within good reason; Zed is about to go on tour. Before he jets off, he visits his parents in London, a repatriation 2 years too late. It all comes crashing down when he loses feeling in his legs on a trip, leading to a diagnosis of an auto-immune disorder.

Funnily enough, Ahmed’s last role in Sound of Metal also followed a musician whose life takes a sharp detour due to a physical illness. Where Sound of Metal is the healing of a scar, Mogul Mowgli is a colonial wound ripped wide open. The cinematography is arresting, shooting Ahmed in a tight 4:3 as he raps through concerts real and imagined. While the beginning of the film is exhilarating, its colours slowly become dreary and dizzying, following Zed’s decline in health.

Riz Ahmed is a force. There is always a risk in acting your own words. It’s an easy trap where narcissism can find a home in an actor’s work, a la Woody Allen. With Ahmed, it feels like a natural extension to his already prolific career as both an actor and musician. Ahmed is one half of the Indian-American/British-Pakistani hip hop duo Swet Sweat Boys, whose music revolves around Muslim identity in the Western world. Ahmed is constantly grappling with the question: “Where are you from?”. His experience lends itself in Mogul Mowgli to moments that only someone who has lived through them could write. One particular scene that stands out is a conversation between Zed and his cousin, who rips into him for his assimilation into Western culture. His cousin insists that Zed (whose real name is Zaheer) is straying away from his identity by adopting a name that is easier on the English tongue. Another scene grapples with the question of gatekeeping within a community. RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan) is Zed’s contemporary and set to replace him on tour. Despite being Pakistani himself, Zed is convinced that he’s the one poised to become the next Pakistani star, not RPG. Through all this, Riz Ahmed has an electric presence. His anger and frustration simmers just below his stare but never truly boils over. When it does, it’s equal parts heartbreaking and harrowing. It’s a performance with a certain type of nuance that was missing in Sound of Metal where Ahmed is putting his literal blood to bare on screen.

The most stunning parts of Mogul Mowgli is when the film begins to teeter the line between illusion and reality. Zed begins to see a hallucination of a bright, colourful figure of Toba Tek Singh, a manifestation of a short satirical story following patients of a Lahore asylum being sent from India to Pakistan during the Partition. It is very much a representation of Zed (and Ahmed’s) and his multiple halves; rapper and son, healthy and unhealthy, India and Pakistan.

Mogul Mowgli’s entire thesis is the evergreen tug-of-war between the halves of children of immigrants. It is an examination of this questioning that never ends, a constant battle you can only hope to learn from rather than heal. It is fitting that the end of the film features no real closure. There is no answer to whether Zed goes back to New York, if his girlfriend calls back or if the treatment will ever take hold. Rather it has a cathartic back and forth between Zed and his cold father, who finally bursts alive. It’s a reminder that maybe, as children of immigrants, you don’t necessarily heal. Maybe that push and pull is what keeps you going.