Mogul Mowgli Blu-ray Review
Zed (Riz Ahmed) is a rapper, successful enough to be about to embark on a national tour. However, he comes down with a serious and increasingly debilitating illness, which causes him to reassess his career and his life.
Written by Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed and directed by the former, Mogul Mowgli is on the surface a drama of coming to terms with illness, likely an incurable illness at that, but it is also a story of one young man’s coming to terms with his identity, or rather identities. As a rapper about to get a national tour, Zed uses his music to express a sense of his life as a British Asian, but on the other hand he is criticised by his family and community for forgetting where he comes from and where his roots are, even for calling himself Zed when his given name is Zaheer. In a flashback, Zed’s father, also a musician, brings young Zed, already a rap fan, downstairs to a party: “Think of this as our rap,” his father says, referring to the traditional Qawwali music playing. As Zed’s illness progresses, his father Bashir (Alyy Khan) tries to tackle it using traditional non-western methods, such as “cupping” and at home chillies are burned to ward off the evil eye.
Stylistically, at first Mogul Mowgli comes off as modern-day verité, all handheld digital cinematography. But that’s deceptive, as we frequently enter Zed’s head, his memories and dreams, and his father’s memories of the Partition of 1947, dividing what had been British India along religious lines into the new nation states of India and Pakistan, displacing millions of people and provoking violence that lead to millions of deaths.
Pakistan became a Muslim country and the one from where Zed’s family originates. Zed is haunted by the figure of Toba Tek Singh (Jeff Mirza), a reference to the Partition and a 1955 short story by Saadat Hasan Manto. (This is a reference which would have been largely lost on non-Asian audiences, myself included, but the extras on this release do help to put it into context.) As the film progresses, cinematographer Annika Summerson’s camera slows down, and as Zed’s illness progresses, becomes more static. Tariq and Summerson shoot the film in 4:3, the narrower frame emphasises Zed’s increasing confinement.
Certainly Zed isn’t always sympathetic, as he's self-assured to the point of being cocky, and not above being selfish at times. He has put pretty much everything towards his career as a rapper, only to be struck down at the point where he was on the verge of something bigger. However, over the course of the film, he does begin to come to terms with his life and heritage. Ahmed’s commitment to the role, shot in sequence due to the need for him to lose weight (10kg in total) for his later scenes, is undoubted, and while we certainly don’t always like Zed, the film does make us care what happens to him.
Films made by British Black or Asian film-makers, and starring Black or Asian actors, haven’t always been thick on the ground: you have to go back only as far as 1976 and the first British feature film made by a non-white director (Pressure, directed by Trinidad-born Horace Ové). So films like this are welcome, casting a light on people who have been part of British society for decades but not often represented on screen, even if the film wasn’t worthwhile as a work in its own right.
Mogul Mowgli is a Blu-ray release from the BFI, encoded for Region B only. The film has a 15 certificate, as does the short film Daytimer.
The film was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa Mini and the Blu-ray transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.33:1. Given that this is a new film that has existed only in the digital realm from shooting to release, there’s no reason to doubt that this looks as it’s intended, at more or less the same resolution as a 2K DCP if you had seen it that way in the cinema.
There are, count them, five soundtrack options on this release. Two of them are the feature soundtrack, in either DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 (playing in surround). There’s little to choose between them, and even in the one without a dedicated LFE channel, my subwoofer picked up significant bass at points, such as Zed’s rap gig at the start. Another track is the commentary and there are two audio-descriptive tracks. One describes the action and also translates the Urdu dialogue while the other just provides a voiceover translation for the Urdu. The film is in a mixture of that language and English, with characters often slipping from one to the other almost in consecutive sentences, often the way in bilingual families. There are two subtitle streams, the default translating the Urdu dialogue and also an English hard-of-hearing stream.
The extras begin with a commentary by Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed. This was recorded remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so there are some occasional audio issues, but nothing too distracting. The two men have quite a bit to say about how this film was made and their intentions in making it.
Tariq and Ahmed feature in a Q &A (19:35), recorded remotely for the 2020 London Film Festival, with the two men interviewed by Elhum Shakerifar, and covering a fair amount of the same ground as the commentary and, for that matter, Shakerifar’s booklet essay, of which more below, such as implications that may pass by first-time and/or non-Asian viewers. It’s not insignificant that Zed’s illness is an autoimmune condition, his body fighting against itself, a metaphor for his position between two cultures.
Next up, are some deleted scenes, or rather rushes of material which isn’t in the final film, with a Play All option (22:35). A large part of it is made up of scenes with Asim Chaudhry as the doctor delivering Zed’s diagnosis, played several different ways. Incidentally, the clapperboard we see at the start of each reveals that the film was known in production as Mughal Mowgli.
Two videos from Riz Ahmed’s own recording career follow. “Mogambo” (3:09) is from his album The Long Goodbye and Ahmed/Zed performs it at the start of Mogul Mowgli. The video is directed and shot by Bassam Tariq in Pakistan in 2018. “Once Kings” (3:40) dates from 2020 and this video, directed by Myriam Raja, includes footage from Mogul Mowgli. Also on the disc is the trailer for Mogul Mowgli (1:20).
Finally, there is the short film Daytimer (15:18), written and directed by Riz Ahmed. Naseem (Jordan O’Donegan), a victim of racist bullying at school, goes off on his own to a daytime rave. It’s 1999 so his mother is trying to contact him by pager rather than smartphone. An engaging short. Some viewers should be advised of a sequence featuring strobe lighting.
The BFI’s booklet, available with the first pressing only, begins with “The Body Keeps the Score”, an essay by Elhum Shakerifar. This lengthy piece spends a lot of time teasing out implications that may escape viewers from outside, as well as describing both Tariq and Ahmed’s careers up to this point. (Tariq was a documentary filmmaker before this, which is his first dramatic feature.) One slight nitpick: she is incorrect by saying that the only white face on screen is that of the doctor giving Zed his diagnosis, as there’s also a nurse in the fertility clinic scene. Also in the booklet is Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh”, translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan. Extras on disc releases, at their best, help to put their films in a context which may not always be apparent to audiences out of the expected target group, so it’s a pity that anyone who buys this Blu-ray after its first pressing will not receive this booklet. Also included are film credits, notes and credits on the extras, and stills.
Mogul Mowgli is available to buy on Blu-ray from February 22.