Synopsis: Zed (Riz Ahmed) is a respected British-Pakistani MC, determined to make it as a rapper and willing to sacrifice relationships with family and loved ones to succeed. When Zed receives an offer of a European tour, it appears his dreams are on the cusp of becoming a reality. However, when ill-health strikes, Zed is forced to make some tough decisions about his career and life.
Mogul Mowgli is Bassam Tariq’s debut feature and it’s a confident calling card, but clearly, it’s Riz Ahmed who was the driving force behind the film being made. The talented British actor is onscreen for almost the entirety of the film’s eighty-nine minutes. In that time he delivers an exceptionally powerful performance and does so with apparent ease. Ahmed is also credited as producer, co-creator, screenplay co-writer and it also features several tracks from the actor’s 2020 concept rap album, The Long Goodbye. It is the epitome of an actor’s passion project.
In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Ahmed gives a tour de force performance; brilliantly demonstrating Zed’s motivation and the sacrifices that he’s willing to make to achieve his dream. This doesn’t make the character particularly likeable, but his reasoning is rendered crystal clear. After rowing with his girlfriend, Bina (Aiysha Hart), the two lie in bed together. Bina appears to be asleep but Zed is restless. Agitated, he quietly springs into to life, angrily articulating his frustrations but doing so at a whisper. Zed, looking almost directly into the camera, tells us, “Legacies outlive love” and he repeats his mantra just to make sure we understand him. This man isn’t going to let anyone stop him from achieving his dream.
The scene is a beautiful showcase for Ahmed’s talents but it’s also a great reminder of the empathy that cinema can conjure. I might not sympathise with Zed or like the character, but I can empathise with him and understand his reasoning. Tariq also deserves credit for his direction because it’s a scene that could easily be rendered awkward or unintentionally humorous. It’s also important because it foreshadows the oncoming catalyst that will ultimately derail the character’s life.
Mogul Mowgli feels indebted to films like American Honey (Arnold, 2016), Girlhood (Sciamma, 2014) and – whisper it – 8 Mile (Hanson, 2002). Arguably though, it’s Andrea Arnold who is the most notable presence felt on Tariq’s film, with seeming influence on the screenplay and filmmaking. The story focuses on inherently working-class characters and settings, and its tale is one focused on escape. The filmmaking utilises handheld camera work, makes use of diegetic sound, utilises framing to convey Zed’s claustrophobic situation, and of course, it’s shot in the 1.33:1/4:3 aspect ratio (which only adds to the tension and claustrophobia). If you’re going to emulate a realist filmmaker, you can’t do much better than Andrea Arnold.
The film also examines trauma, specifically Bashir’s (Alyy Khan) and how he fled the Partition of India. Zed’s father refuses to discuss his escape, but we see glimpses of it through Zed’s vivid hallucinations. There are also discussions of identity and how Zaheer became Zed. The suggestion being that ‘Zed’ was more palatable for white Britains and that – to some degree – the persona helped him to avoid racist and xenophobic persecutions. Zed refuses to acknowledge this but his brother sees the creation of Zed for what it was – a creation to navigate white Britain’s xenophobia.
Being true to oneself and the street is often a key component of rap music, but instead of doing this, Zaheer created a persona that white Britains could more easily accept. This intertwining of identity politics, race, xenophobia and a powerful lead performance all help to elevate the film. Mogul Mowgli is by no means a polemical, but what it is, is the work of a passionate, driven artist and one with a timely, lived experience to share. In short, Riz Ahmed is a bloody national treasure!
Mogul Mowgli is being screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival from the 10 to 13 of October 2020. It will be available to watch via the BFI Player and in selected cinemas across the UK. Mogul Mowgli is due for general release on the 30 October.