There’s an awful lot riding on this one line pulled from one of Riz Ahmed’s major rap from Mogul Mowgli, and from his own career as Riz MC. Indeed, this question is effectively the central question of the film. Mogul Mowgli is a film which charts one man’s career and what he has left behind to achieve it. Despite being a rapper whose lyrics prove he cares deeply about marking out his own identity, Zed’s personal identity rather neatly unravels across the next ninety minutes.
The first act of Mogul Mowgli thrums with energy; Ahmed’s Londoner rapper Zed is on top of the world playing to a crowd in New York City in what is his breakthrough performance. Ahmed plays him with a magnanimous presence, cocksure, determined to do what he wants. The prospect of going home for some rest before he takes a place on a major European tour in a week slams the brakes on. Suddenly, we go from electric performances and drop into personal drama effortlessly. Zaheer (Zed’s birth name) and his presence run completely at odds to the rest of his family; this is awkward, stilted and difficult in the best way possible, completely colouring Ahmed’s character as this fish-out-of-water where he should feel most at home. This familial distance is only the tip of Zed’s personal iceberg, though.
Being diagnosed with a degenerative autoimmune disease interrupts all sense of control and authority over his own direction of life, and the camera does not at all shy away from documenting this. Annika Summerson’s claustrophobically close camera and cold, harsh colour palette render excruciating sequences of painful treatments with force that jumps off the screen. Accompanied by an increasingly imposing and interfering father (expertly portrayed by Alyy Khan), the prospect of his career-defining tour spot being handed over to a comparatively rubbish rival rapper RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan) and the increasing weight of a culture he feels completely at odds with, Mogul Mowgli collapses into a tense drama that sustains itself throughout.
Such tonal shifts would feel out of place in many films, but with Ahmed in the driving seat Mogul Mowgli flows between scenes wonderfully. Even the more surreal elements mesh well with otherwise a clinical, cold treatment of a man battling with nature. The flashes of magical realism from the mystical figure who impresses the mythic story of the city Toba Tek Singh (torn in half by the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India) are intentionally jarring, interrupting and haunting Zed’s life as he is forced to stop and confront his own heritage.
With the amount of context Mogul Mowgli requires, I left feeling that this was not a film “for” me. However, I do not at all think that’s a bad thing. Despite the cultural distance that I felt I was operating at whilst watching, I was enthralled for the most part. The one major criticism I had was that a few moments did feel somewhat self-indulgent, but with a protagonist as arrogant as Zed at the heart of this personal narrative, it is very easy to see this self-indulgence as just another expression of a deeply flawed and conflicted individual.
With Mogul Mowgli, Riz Ahmed is once again proving himself one of the most capable, versatile actors currently working. His magnetism carries the film. Mogul Mowgli feels urgent, only able to exist today thanks in no small part to changing ideas about how we define and shape identities. There is a potent, fiery energy at the heart of the film, straining to get out and unpack some of the questions it puts out there about finding your place in 21st Century Britain. And it’s brilliant.
Dir: Bassam Tariq
Scr: Riz Ahmed, Bassam Tariq
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Nabhaan Rizwan, Anjana Vasan, Aiysha Hart, Hussain Manawer, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Jeff Mirza
Runtime: 90 minutes