LFF 2020: Mogul Mowgli Review
Bassam Tariq’s ferocious new film Mogul Mowgli is rapturous success for both Tariq and his co-writer and star Riz Ahmed. Centred on a British Pakistani rapper, Mogul Mowgli is a wild and all-consuming exploration of culture, identity and disassociation.
Ahmed’s Zed is an up-and-coming rapper who performs to sold-out venues and is finally about to enter the big leagues after being offered the opportunity to open for a much bigger artist. Zed visits his home and family in England, a place which should be comforting, but mostly just gives him a lot of anxiety. Suddenly his body stops listening to his brain’s commands, leaving the young man unable to walk on his own or even get up from the toilet.
Tariq explores cultural identity and the modern anxieties revolving around it fearlessly, utilising powerful, but slightly repetitive, dream sequences which often see Zed physically fight his demons. Zed is haunted by hereditary, generational trauma which almost seems to have manifested itself in the form of an auto-immune disease that ravages Zed’s body, leaving him helpless and a shell of his vibrant, former self.
Scenes taking place on a stage at Zed’s shows are shot with fierceness and energy by cinematographer Annika Summerson. Under Tariq’s uncompromising and inventive direction and Summerson’s appropriately chaotic, yet organic camera work, Mogul Mowgli morphs into almost an experimental film about one man’s identity crisis. Zed’s raps reveal a confused, torn man, who isn’t sure where he belongs in this world.
It’s a familiar battle to anyone stuck between two cultures, a theme similarly explored in both Lulu Wang’s exceptional The Farewell and Hong Khaou’s sensitive Monsoon. While the two films eventually take different routes to explore cultural alienation through very different narratives and nuances, Mogul Mowgli does it with such force it almost feels primal at times. It is the perfect storm of trauma, identity and cultural disassociation, with powerful results that stick with you for a long time.
Ahmed turns in one of his best performances to date. He is a smart performer, unafraid to experiment and Mogul Mowgli feels like an effort to spread his creative wings even further. Ahmed's performance is as defiant as it is vulnerable, a truly powerful show of talent. Having co-written the script with Tariq, the film has a personal feel and Ahmed also wrote the lyrics to the songs featured in the film, all of which describe the difficulties of existing between between British and Pakistani cultures. Zed raps about loving a cup of tea, but also being asked about where he’s from - with Wembley being the wrong answer. While the film never dumbs anything down, it also never tries to come up with elaborate, fake ways of communicating its message.
While Mogul Mowgli loses some steam towards the end and lacks the means to the tell the story more efficiently, this is a major work from both Tariq and Ahmed. Led by a powerhouse performance from Ahmed, it continues the important trend of telling stories from the diaspora and engaging in challenging, versatile conversations of culture and identity.
Mogul Mowgli will screen at this year’s BFI London Film Festival before arriving in UK cinemas on October 30.
You can read more of our coverage of LFF 2020 here.