“They ask you where you’re from. Nah, where you’re really from? The question seems simple, but the answers’ kinda long.” ~ Zed (Riz Ahmed) in Mogul Mowgli
I can’t recount the number of times I have been asked the question of where I’m really from. The question of identity is one that immigrants and children of immigrants are asked all the time, and there’s no easy answer. It’s partly a loaded question as we battle our sense of belonging when we come from two or more worlds.
Mogul Mowgli beautifully explores this multicultural dilemma and identity crisis through the power of music, art, and the sublime performances of a mostly South-Asian cast, led by the British-Pakistani Ahmed.
Ahmed not only stars in and produces this film, but he also makes his debut as co-writer, scripting this indie passion project with Bassam Tariq, who makes his dramatic feature directorial debut.
Ahmed and Tariq bring together a personal story that hits all the right emotional notes as it showcases these internal conflicts about one man’s second-generation immigrant identity crisis.
The story follows Zed, an ambitious London-born Pakistani rapper, whose career is on the verge of taking off in New York. His manager Vaseem (Anjana Vasan) informs him that he has just booked a gig to be an opening act for a major musician. Zed is hungry with ambition, putting his relationships and family second. His lyrics often dive into politics, racism, and prejudice experienced by young British Pakistanis. However, for someone who raps about his roots, he’s not been home in years. His girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) reminds him of this fact.
He therefore takes a trip home to visit his family just before his tour. There’s a disconnect with his family as he tries to speak a bit of Urdu to connect with them. They remind him that his birth name is Zaheer and his mom prefers to call him Zuzu. No sooner that he returns home, he is struck with an autoimmune disease that leaves him unable to walk. He is told that his body doesn’t recognize itself as the immune system attacks its own body. This is how Mogul Mowgli introduces epigenetic trauma: Zed’s family had suffered from the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan.
Tariq swiftly intersperses scenes of corpses on a train in dream-like sequences as Zed starts a treatment akin to chemotherapy. Ahmed uses the power of his rap music — he goes by the moniker Riz MC as part of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys in his offscreen musical career — to further the narrative, which drives home the internal turmoil experienced by Zed. One of my favourites lines in his rap is, “I tried to stand up for my blood, but my blood won’t let me stand up.” It reveals how the inherited trauma forces him to confront his identity crisis and to work on his fractured self.
Mogul Mowgli is a powerful testament to multicultural identity crisis and generational divide – one that is poignantly explored through rap and Qawwali [Sufi Islamic devotional singing]. Mogul Mowgli hits close to home for many, including Ahmed, who earned his first Oscar nomination last year for his brilliant turn in Sound of Metal. This role feels similar in that vein, but this time around it’s more culturally significant. It’s clear that Ahmed poured his lyrics and his lived experience into this role.
Ahmed sheds every persona he has occupied over the last 15 years of his career and slips into Zed’s vulnerability. He gives a raw, unflinching portrayal of a man torn between identities and a sickness that causes him to stop and look at his family’s past in order to move forward. Ahmed’s strength resides in unpacking these deeply messy (and real) characters who express the weight of their fractured selves through their music. And it’s with roles like this one that Ahmed solidifies his status as one of the most exciting actors today.
As a South Asian who comes from different diasporas, I related to the personal and often uncomfortable moments that are captured on screen. Tariq reaches for poetic moments in the midst of the chaos that reflects Zed’s mental state. I appreciated the beautiful visuals and the choice to use Ahmed’s real childhood home videos to add a personal touch.
Never has a film about identity hit this close to home for me and it was a treat to see South Asian faces light up the screen as they turned in heart-wrenching performances. Mogul Mowgli leaves you more informed about identity, culture, and heritage, and at many times, inspires you to question them.
Mogul Mowgli is in select theatres Friday, September 3.