This intriguing drama stars Riz Ahmed as Zed, a fledgling British-Pakistani rapper with autoimmune disease. Debilitating and degenerative, the illness manifests itself in gradual muscle weakness. Zed struggles to lift his arms and legs, to move from one point to the next. It’s a complex, sometimes understated performance from Ahmed, who carefully handles the transitions between his character’s lived experience and his recurrent hallucinations, which are brought on by thwarted career ambitions and the apparently terminal diagnosis.
The film interrogates several key tensions. It picks at the spiritual concerns of the Pakistani diaspora in British society, in a way reminiscent of Hanif Kureishi’s Thatcher-era narrative My Beautiful Laundrette. In tales such as these, minority groups often acquire agency through ambivalence. They retain signifiers of difference during their cultural assimilation and, in doing so, articulate a fresh identity. These conflicts and anxieties, illustrated by Zed’s adoption of his new name – one he reclaims from childhood bullies – are bound up with his mixed heritage.
This is further complicated and wrought by the physical repercussions of his sudden affliction. His relentless desire to succeed is set against the clear-eyed, clinical reality of his deteriorating condition. His father Bashir (Alyy Khan) is a worthy counterpoint – more rooted in tradition and unsentimental. There’s broad humour found in Zed’s crude and senseless rap rival RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), and in a curious, disjointed alleyway encounter, which starts as a misunderstanding before descending into violence. Claustrophobic visual flourishes gesture at Zed’s periodic delusions. These snippets, however, don’t constitute a persuasive dramatic arc.
Highly rated director Bassam Tariq brings a potent audiokinesis to Mogul Mowgli, his first fiction feature, which he complements with Paul Corley’s stressful, unsettling score. Ahmed co-wrote and produced the project, which makes capital of his skills as an MC on London’s hip hop circuit. Likewise, he unveils the customs, tropes and dialects of British-Pakistani communities. The rising chant of “Toba Tek Singh” functions as a curtain call. Zed stares into a mirror. He may as well be reckoning with his birth name, the climbing refrain of “Zaheer.”
Mogul Mowgli does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
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