Riz Ahmed plays an ambitious rapper in director Bassam Tariq’s thumping drama.
Riz Ahmed, actor, MC, and all-round top talent, takes centre stage in Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli. Acting as co-writer, producer and in the starring role of Zed, Ahmed plays an ambitious British rapper so intent on moving forward that he never stops to look back.
When Zed raps, he does it “for the mosque and the mosh pit,” sharp, feverish bars with the tenacity of slam poetry and the weight of his world within them. His life is in his lyrics; the racism he’s faced, his struggles with identity, the enduring question of “where are you really from?”
He finds space in his music to investigate these feelings but Zed hasn’t been home to his own family in two years, choosing instead to hide out in the States and pursue his music career there. Only the chance to support another musician on a European tour, and a separation from his emotionally distant girlfriend Bina, sends him on a return trip to London.
Back at his parents’ home, Zed is forced to re-engage with the life he’s distanced himself from, “the business of Britishness” (as he himself raps) in the Pakistani diaspora. There are plenty of souvenirs of his youth in the house, notably the t-shirts and aprons bearing the logos of his father’s failed business ventures, and when his uncle tells a story about being chased by skinheads in his own adolescence, Zed interrupts with cheeky comments about how the tale has changed since he last heard it.
When his father is asked to recall the horrors of the journey he made from India to Pakistan during the partition in 1947, Zed becomes guarded, perhaps afraid of what he might learn. A sudden illness and Zed’s hospitalisation opens this door even further, with his career on the line and the notion of legacy, in many forms, at stake.
These questions of heritage and history, of bloodlines and independence, make Mogul Mowgli a sincere and balanced work, at its best in quickfire dream sequences, Zed’s visions of the mysterious ‘Toba Tek Singh’, and impassioned moments under the stage lights. Tariq beautifully captures the textures of Zed’s world and his father’s memories that infiltrate his new understanding of his life: the dust, ashes, talc, spices, crushed flowers.
A few shifts in tone feel occasionally jarring, but the film steers away from too sentimental an approach and finds a moving and invigorating conclusion with Ahmed firmly at its thumping heart.
Published 21 Feb 2020
By Lou Thomas
Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver star in this understated literary drama, based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir.
Riz Ahmed’s acting talents are wasted in this needlessly convoluted noir thriller.