Riz Ahmed is on a roll this year. Following his titanic, career-best performance as a drummer on a journey of accepting his loss of hearing in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Ahmed delivers yet again a riveting display of emotional vulnerability and grittiness in Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli.
In this gutsy and explosive fictional debut feature, Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper struggling to find his place in the world. When we first meet him, he’s on stage, delivering his rap monologue in front of a massive crowd in New York. His lyrics are filled with rage and catharsis, it’s almost as if he’s trying to express his anger and confusion, or perhaps, even to find an answer to the question of his own identity as an artist and as a second-generation immigrant he keeps asking himself every day. When his American girlfriend, Bina (Aiysha Hart), confronts him about why he doesn’t want to go home to his family in London to find the remedy he’s been looking for, Zed doesn’t really know how to respond back. It’s only after he’s being offered an opportunity to go on a European that Zed finally decides to set his foot back to his childhood home; to reconnect with the family he’s left behind for almost two years.
Things, however, aren’t exactly homey back in London. Zed’s father, Bashir (Alyy Khan), keeps criticizing his son’s career choice anytime they’re in the room together. His mother, Nasra (Sudha Buchar), is a little too overbearing, breathing down his neck almost every minute. Even the relatives Zed is not even close with are judging him for using Zed on the stage instead of his own birth name, Zaheer. And to make matters even worse, Zed now has to be hospitalized for the foreseeable future after being diagnosed with a degenerative auto-immune disease — an illness resulting from one’s body inability to recognize itself — which means that his tour might not be happening at all.
Mogul Mowgli spends most of its runtime observing Zed as he’s wrestling to accept his new condition. And while this sounds pretty generic, what Tariq and Ahmed — who also serves as co-writer and producer — offers here is actually a lot more complex. Instead of just focusing on Zed’s physical recovery, the movie also explores Zed’s inner dilemma on his cultural identity and faith, with questions related to heritage and generational trauma sprinkled here and there. Through inventive, hallucinatory sequences involving Toba Tek Singh, which is based on a satire short story about the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, as well as a flashback featuring Bashir’s attempt at fleeing to England when he was a kid, Tariq tries to externalize the battle that Zed is having inside his head, with Anika Summerson’s 4:3 frame and plenty of close-up shots heighten the claustrophobic sense to an intense degree.
The visual style may feel a little too jarring at times, especially considering how little context is given to the audience regarding what Zed’s hallucinations and flashbacks are actually about. But as the movie goes on and reaches toward its moving and cathartic final moment, it starts to get easy to understand why, in the end, Tariq and Ahmed decide to not fully explain the meaning behind all those sequences. They want to display how disoriented Zed is; how the constant battle that’s happening inside his consciousness is not just an imagination, but something that is real.
What’s even more fascinating is how even when things get more and more surreal, Mogul Mowgli always finds a way to ground its story on a small, intimate level; focusing solely on Zed’s struggle instead of trying to sharpen the edginess of its visual language. Tariq also fills the movie with a lot of devastating moments without fully resorting to sentimentality and melodrama. Take, for instance, the scene where Zed is, once again, being chastised by his father after he tells him that he wants to go through with the medical procedure which might make him sterile instead of a conventional treatment his father suggested before. On lesser hands, this scene would’ve been used as the big, dramatic moment of the movie, but on Tariq’s talented hands, it’s kept as understated as possible. Yes, of course, there are screams and cries, but nothing ever feels manipulative. Mogul Mowgli’s loudest yell is always the one that’s happening inside Zed’s head.
Matching Tariq’s excellent directorial skill is Ahmed’s control of his character. He knows how to fully display the anger, fear, and frustration that Zed is feeling without always leaning heavily on big, fleshy performance in every scene. If anything, it’s his subtleness and vulnerability that makes what he’s delivered in this movie all the more phenomenal. It’s obvious from the way he articulates Zed’s emotions that Mogul Mowgli is very personal to him. Khan’s performance as Bashir is equally staggering, providing a sense of regret and sadness underneath his character’s quietness. Anytime the two share a scene together, the dynamic between their characters feels organic. And it is their chemistry that’s what, in the end, makes the final scene of the movie all the more affecting.
Mogul Mowgli aims to examine the complexity of being a second-generation immigrant, a person stuck between two cultures but struggles to feel belonging in neither of them. It fuses surrealism and character study to a powerful result, and while doing so, it gives Riz Ahmed a vehicle to, once again, showcase his incredible acting talents. Though some parts feel like an afterthought, like the subplot involving Zed and his girlfriend Bina, Mogul Mowgli, in the end, delivers what it wants to accomplish from the start: offering a raw and compelling examination of culture and identity.
Mogul Mowgli begins playing in UK Cinemas starting October 30.