Mogul Mowgli is a restless, writhing exploration of identity politics which frustrates its audience – sometimes unintentionally – but which lingers like the remnants of an unsettling dream. Starring and co-written by a captivating Riz Ahmed, Bassam Tariq’s feature demands a watch for the central performance alone.
When rising British Pakistani rapper Zed (Ahmed) returns home after two years on tour, he must face not only the family and name he has left behind, but also the reality of his decreasing mobility. Plagued by illness and an increasingly fraught relationship with his father (Ally Khan), Zaheer slips into disturbing hallucinations, haunted by spectres of the past.
These ghosts, as it turns out, loom slightly too large. A masked figure representing the “rupture”, the Partition that ripped India and its people in half, plays out as a rather heavy-handed metaphor, while a literal wrestling match mirrors the young MC’s internal cultural conflict. “The body can’t recognise itself, so it’s attacking itself”, is the doctor’s diagnosis, a somewhat unsubtle – though admittedly apt – comparison between Zed’s antibodies and his psyche.
Perhaps these additions feel unnecessary because they undermine the talents of the cast, whose portrayals are visceral enough to make such symbolism gratuitous. Khan’s performance is taut with suppressed trauma and love, while Ahmed’s Zed is intense and feverish, his body a coiled spring. The film reaches its apex as he spits on stage; the combination of whip-smart lyrics and frenetic energy feels fresh and fluid. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t make more of Ahmed’s skills as a rapper – we often have to make do with snatches of bars uttered frantically from beds and hospital wheelchairs. Perhaps this is the point: though the lines are sleek and satisfying, the fragmented delivery is a refusal to resolve the emotional cadences of a life that’s steeped in uncertainty.
While the film revels in discomfort, this only serves to heighten every moment of warmth. The protagonist is alienated from both himself and those around him; like a baby taking its first steps, he must learn to accept the help of others. Only when he shares his vulnerability can he begin to remaster the reflexes that once came so easily, culminating in a final scene that’s unexpectedly tender.
Mogul Mowgli is released in select cinemas on 30th October 2020.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Mogul Mowgli here: