“They all ask you where you’re from, the question seems simple but the answer’s kinda long.” Premiering earlier this year at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, Bassam Tariq’s first feature length film is an impassioned exploration of cultural identity and heritage in an ever changing Britain. Featuring a dynamic and heartfelt performance from Riz Ahmed (Rogue One, Venom), this is a passionate and poignant entry in the 2020 London Film Festival lineup.
Directed by Bassam Tariq and co-written by star Riz Ahmed, Mogul Mowgli centres on up and coming British Pakistani rapper Zed (Riz Ahmed). Before the artist embarks on his biggest tour yet, he reconnects with his roots and visits his family back in Wembley, London. While arguing with an over eager fan about a selfie, Zed is struck down by a debilitating pain, forcing him to be hospitalised for further tests. Discovering he has an autoimmune disease which decreases mobility, he struggles to regain his strength as young rival RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan) is eager to take his place on the tour.
Tariq’s gritty but boldly authentic film is thematically rich, delving into cultural and religious identity. Zaheer (aka Zed), a second generation British Pakistani chasing his dreams in America, has lost sight of his true identity. With a confused sense of belonging, the rapper is stuck between dividing identities, highlighting a similarly poignant thread explored in The Farewell. With political tensions rising in the UK due to Brexit, Mogul Mowgli is a hugely timely and emotional look at what it is be British. “Now everybody, everywhere want their country back” raps a heated Zed. With his brother arguing America has changed him, and a fan using the racial slur “coconut” against him, it’s easy to understand the cultural disassociation and alienation Zed faces.
As Zed struggles physically and psychologically with the pain of his muscular deficiency, Tariq interweaves scenes of hallucinations, memories and dream sequences. The rapper becomes haunted by the mysterious Sikh figure Toba Tek Singh who speaks of the horror of Partition, along with recurring sequences of a child hidden on a train. In one sequence, Zed finds himself in a fierce rap battle, which is where Ahmed truly comes alive. The MC’s slam poetry style rap is full of energy and urgency, reiterating the actor’s own work highlighting the growing divide in England as heard in “Where You From” and “The Breakup”. However these scenes do feel a little disjointed and disconnected from the main narrative, entering the boundaries of experimental film.
Headlining a captivating performance by the British Pakistani actor, rapper, and activist, Ahmed brings an impressive intensity to the role. Undergoing a deeply emotional journey from rising star to struggling through rehabilitation, he earnestly displays a dynamic range of states and expressions. Sharing a complicated relationship with his family, particularly his father (a wonderful Alyy Khan), Jed’s transformative (and metaphorical) pilgrimage sees him reconnect with his heritage and parents.
Bolstered by a tour de force performance by Ahmed, Mogul Mowgli is a deeply emotional and personal outing. Although it loses steam towards the closing mark, it’s undoubtedly an ambitious feature-length debut. Ahmed is one of the most exciting British performers at the moment and I genuinely can’t wait to see him in the similarly musical themed Sound of Metal.