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Review: Riz Ahmed’s Soul-Searching Freestyle Mesmerizes in Flawed but Winningly Bold ‘Mogul Mowgli’

By Ciara Wardlow | Film | September 5, 2021 |

By Ciara Wardlow | Film | September 5, 2021 |


Buoyed by a mesmerizing performance from Riz Ahmed and poetic visual storytelling, Mogul Mowgli is a compellingly daring, if at times uneven, tale of art, identity, and sublimated trauma.

Ahmed stars as Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper on the verge of international success. Having made the jump from the UK to the US, he’s all set to make an even bigger career leap opening for a major act on an international tour. Feeling like he’s finally on the cusp of truly making it big, Zed decides to go visit his family in London for the first time in two years before heading out.

Zed’s songs center his identity as a Muslim British-Pakistani man, and he frames his struggle to make it as a rapper as something bigger than himself, his non-existent personal life beyond his work martyred to the noble cause of breaking boundaries so that those who follow in his footsteps might have a slightly easier climb. However, back at his parents’ home, the dissonance between the picture of heroic, elegant martyrdom Zed paints in his songs and the actual reality becomes clear.

While his music centers his identity, in truth he’s painfully lost—on an awkward footing with his parents, Bashir and Nasra (Alyy Khan and Sudha Bhuchar, respectively), who both clearly love him but don’t understand him or his choices—and estranged from his own community. It’s Ramadan but Zed’s not fasting; he accompanies Bashir to a mosque but finds himself escaping for a smoke halfway through, only to get into a fight over a significant error Zed makes regarding Muslim etiquette but doesn’t want to admit. While Zed frames himself as a champion for his people, his people see him more along the lines of a bit of a sell-out—a cousin calls him out for adopting the Anglicized “Zed” over his birthname Zaheer (“that’s what they gave you”), and Zed never really has a proper comeback.

What is meant to be a short visit home turns into something else entirely when Zed’s clever, poignant lyrics of generational trauma and the liminalities of diasporic identity—actually Ahmed’s own from his 2020 album The Long Goodbye—prove prophetic in ways he never anticipated as he struck down by an aggressive auto-immune condition. His immune system failing to recognize his own muscle tissue and attacking it as a foreign invader becomes a perverse echo of his identity struggles. Suddenly stuck at home for the foreseeable future with his international tour plans up in smoke, Zed is left with little to do or grasp onto besides asking, “why is this happening?”—and figure out how to make peace with the fact that it’s a question without a satisfying answer.

Coming hot on the heels of Sound of Metal, another film in which Ahmed stars as an ambitious musician whose aspirations are abruptly kneecapped by a medical malady, comparisons between the two films feel inevitable. It’s deeply unfortunate timing, as while Mogul Mowgli has more substantial flaws, it has unique and remarkable strengths as well that are regrettably easy to lose sight of in the depths of Sound of Metal’s shadow.

Ahmed shines here in a role tailor-made to showcase the range of his remarkable talents; his freestyle rap work actually predates the start of his acting career, and he co-authored the screenplay with director Bassam Tariq. His many years of experience as a rapper are evident in his performances, and the way he embodies the physicality of Zed’s degenerative condition is often remarkable. Even more so than Sound of Metal, this is Ahmed’s film in the sense that he is not just its center of gravity, but the glue that single-handedly holds it together. In spite of a skilled cast overall, Mogul Mowgli often feels a bit at a loss regarding what to do with its supporting characters. While Zed’s relationship with father Bashir is ultimately given the greatest weight, for instance, the centrality of that relationship doesn’t emerge until oddly late in the game.

Mogul Mowgli’s biggest shortcoming is easily its rather scattered focus. It tries to tackle a lot in just 89 minutes and spends an unfortunate amount of time on detours that don’t fully work. One of the most undercooked subplots involves Zed’s American girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart, capable but not given nearly enough to do here). Narratively, her primary function seems to be to call Zed on his bullsh*t (she’s the one who convinces him to go visit his parents), and while her words are consistently valid, the script does her a major disservice. She only really prominently features in a couple of scenes, and spends the majority of both these scenes critiquing Zed. Bina’s words suggest she’s supposed to be a voice of reason, but the way the film portrays her makes her inherently annoying; if every time a character shows up they’re nagging, they’re going to seem like a bit of a harpy. It’s elements like these that feel rather sloppy and ill-considered, which is particularly unfortunate considering the incredible thoughtfulness and attention to detail on display elsewhere in the film.

Director Bassam Tariq, having established himself as a documentarian with 2013’s These Birds Walk, makes the transition to narrative features incredibly well. In terms of visual storytelling, Mogul Mowgli is stunning. The 4:3 aspect ratio has had something of a comeback over the past decade or so with films like American Honey, First Reformed, and the first few episodes of WandaVision, and Mogul Mowgli is the latest in this distinguished lineage. Featuring stellar work from cinematographer Anika Summerson, Mogul Mowgli is not just hauntingly beautiful, but the sort of film where every aesthetic choice truly feels thematically relevant. Often peeking through curtains and windows, and frequently letting subjects linger at the edges for stranger and more fascinating compositions, the imagery excellently highlights themes of isolation and estrangement, and no shot feels taken for granted.

The film’s bold move of enmeshing Pakistani culture into the story without explaining it is sure to garner mixed reactions. It’s unapologetic in its cultural specificity in the way few films dare to be in a way that makes me want to send a thank you card to the financiers and executives who supported this film as a project that prioritizes audiences of the demographic being represented on screen, even if that means everybody else might not be in on every reference. I myself was not aware of “Toba Tek Singh,” a hugely influential short story written by Saadat Hasan Manto published in 1955 that deals with the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, going into the film. It was clear to me that there were allusions and references that were going over my head, but there was also still more than enough that I was able to grasp onto to make Mogul Mowgli worth the ride. And, being someone with access to the internet and a basic interest in experiences and cultures beyond my own, I was able to do some Googling to help clue myself in afterward.

Mogul Mowgli is a great example of something many conversations around diversifying storytelling fail to adequately address, and that is, to truly move towards authentic, nuanced explorations of diverse identities, the expectation for storytellers to fully explain and teach their identities in the process needs to be lifted. It’s the incredible specificity of Mogul Mowgli that bestows a wonderful authenticity, and that authenticity, in turn, makes the themes widely resonant—a very specific voice crying out, but a cry that echoes very widely. Zed’s struggles with identity and feeling placeless, of what it means to go home when you don’t have a true one, in the sense of a place where belongs wholly and without compromise, are widely relatable, and powerfully rendered here.

Mogul Mowgli is now playing in select theaters.

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Ciara is one of Pajiba's film critics. You can follow her on Twitter.

Header Image Source: Strand Releasing