After blessing audiences with a sensational performance as a drummer losing his hearing in Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed’s latest film Mogul Mowgli is another tale about a musician dealing with unexpected physical change. This time around, the focus is not so much on the physical disability he endures, but rather the internal cultural conflict that has been silently crippling him for years.
A deeply personal and introspective work, Ahmed co-wrote the script and serves as co-producer. Working with director Bassam Tariq, they deliver a brilliant film that is a searing look at identity and heritage. Zed (Ahmed) is British-Pakistani rapper who has become a bit of a sensation on the New York music scene. While his constant touring has caused his relationship with his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) to become strained, his hard work seems to be paying off. Securing an opening act spot for a major world tour, Zed is finally about to pluck the golden apple of success that has been hanging just out of reach.
Given that the tour is a few weeks away, and that Bina challenges him to reconnect with the country he brags about in his rhymes but conveniently never visits, Zed returns to his family home in London after a two-year absence. It does not take long for the culture clashes to set in. Drawn to hip hop since he was a child, everything including his choice to go by the westernized nickname Zed instead of his birthname Zaheer is a point of contention with his family. Even his recent bit of fame does little to impress his father (Alyy Khan) who only truly values the traditions and spiritual teachings of their culture. This divide only intensifies when Zed is hospitalized and diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease.
As Zed’s body begins to slowly breakdown, so to does his chances of making the tour. Adding salt to his fresh emotional wounds is the fact that a rival rapper, RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), wants to both take his tour spot and remix some of Zed’s songs. Losing control of his life physically and mentally, Zed finds himself drifting in and out of hallucinations. Vivid visions that plunged him into a sea of images that shift between his childhood to his parents harrowing escape from India during the Partition.
It is in Zed’s haunting and disorienting visions that Mogul Mowgli finds its distinct and vibrant voice. Effortlessly throwing viewers from one hallucination to the next, the film shows that one can never truly escape one’s culture. Our heritage is an immovable part of our identity, it lingers over us like an unshakable ghost. Tariq uses these sequences to not only explore Zed’s conflicted views of his culture, but also his own insecurities with the westernized image he has crafted. In one hallucination, during a rap battle, Zed’s own cultural appropriation as a rapper comes into question.
An established rapper in his own right, for many of the songs in the film can be found on his 2020 album The Long Goodbye, Ahmed’s own internal turmoil about appropriation and identity pour out through his performance. He takes a character who is very unlikeable at the beginning and humanizes him. One can understand the sense of frustration and anger that comes with being in a battle of wills with family over whether to utilize western or cultural medicines. However, in exploring the character’s various memories, Ahmed also ensures that one identifies with the plight of Zed’s parents as well.
Ahmed’s breathtaking performance, filled with ferocity and vulnerability, elevates Mogul Mowgli over the more traditional tropes that come tales involving generational conflict. What would have otherwise been a straightforward tale is given a fresh and edgy take in Tariq’s skilled hands. He and Ahmed understand that there are no easy answers when unpacking family and historical trauma while simultaneously attempting to navigate two drastically different worlds.
A vibrant and complex exploration of identity, Mogul Mowgli is yet another reminder that Riz Ahmed is having one fantastic year.
Mogul Mowgli screens virtually at the Reel Asian Film Festival from November 12 – 19.