Duration: 90 minutes
Directed by: Bassam Tariq
Written by: Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Nabhaan Rizwan
By Tom Moore
Last year, actor Riz Ahmed rightfully garnered awards praise and recognition for his career-best performance in “Sound of Metal”(2019). Now, he delivers a fittingly familiar follow-up in “Mogul Mowgli” that showcases his talents in front of and behind the camera.
Oddly enough, the film once again sees Ahmed play a rising musician whose life becomes derailed as we see him as Zed, a rising British/Pakistani rapper who becomes afflicted with an autoimmune disease that puts his career in jeopardy as a big tour nears. However, there are more personal and cultural ties weaved within Zed’s story that also connect to Ahmed’s personal and professional life. In the midst of Ahmed starting his acting career, he also garnered respect as a rising hip/hop artist. Before many got to know him in films like “Nightcrawler” (2014) or “Rogue One”(2016), Ahmed had already competed and won many rap battles, released plenty of tracks that embodied his activism for Muslim representation, and even won a VMA for his contribution on the song Immigrants (We Get the Job Done) in “The Hamilton Mixtape”.
Just within the first few moments of meeting Zed and knowing that Ahmed wrote “Mogul Mowgli’s” story alongside director Bassam Tariq, it’s easy to see how his personal experience heavily influenced Zed’s story. Like Ahmed, Zed also utilizes rap for activism in the hopes that he can blaze a trail for others to follow in his path and through portraying Zed, Ahmed shows himself in a new light. For quite a while, it’s been apparent that Ahmed has been a talent to watch out for with the great performances he’s brought, but “Mogul Mowgli” ups his performance caliber a notch or two. The energy, flow, and lyrical prowess that Ahmed shows here is immaculate and the initial introduction we get to him playing Zed totally catches you off guard in the best way possible. He immediately makes a strong impression that instantly gets you interested in Zed and see Ahmed in a unique light.
With Ahmed behind the story, it’s also likely that the cultural and familial issues seen in Zed’s life also come from Ahmed’s experience – which adds a deeper personal connection to Zed. His more traditional father Bashir (Alyy Khan) doesn’t love that Zed has changed his more traditional name to a stage name and never really approved of him heading to London to start a music career. Throughout Zed’s time back home, you can really feel him being pulled in multiple directions as he tries to reenter a culture he’s left behind and that wants nothing to do with the lifestyle he’s adopted. He’s constantly facing scrutiny from those around him and basically being labeled as a sellout. Things become more challenging as he becomes afflicted by an autoimmune disease where Zed’s immune system begins to attack his body making his muscles weak and he’s forced to cancel his tour appearance.
Zed’s battle with this disease really brings him to his breaking point and forces him to confront his selfish, prideful behavior as well as the cultural disconnection between him and Bashir. Although he wants to be a trailblazer for others to follow, he isn’t the most accepting of other visions as he scoffs at the idea of another up and comer, RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan). Clearly preserving his artistry is a priority to him, but he’s put it above his own health and even his family and this moment feels like a big wake up call to him that he doesn’t necessarily accept at first. Even Bashir isn’t without his own sense of unflinching pride as he chooses to accept cultural remedies for Zed and not wanting to understand the choices that he wants to make.
All these disputes and struggles are heightened with Zed having these visions because of his weakened health that can elevate the storytelling, but also make it a little unclear. The idea of adding these trippy hallucinations to Zed internally dealing with these conflicting ideologies is interesting and adds a great thrilling element to the story. In some instances, these moments can even elevate the impact of certain feelings or realizations that Zed is struggling to deal with, like him hearing a traumatic story about his father and facing criticism for his choice in pursuing rap. In some other instances though, they just feel kind of random. The execution of reality shifting to these hallucinations isn’t always clear when it needs to be and makes the overall viewing experience kind of confusing. Also, certain visual aspects, like this person shrouded in flora that follows Zed between visions, don’t really have a clear meaning and it’s tough to figure out if it’s meant to represent the evil eye that some believe Zed has or something more. It’s just kind of this recurring creepy visual that cool, but just kind of random.
Overall though, Zed and Bashir’s conflicted relationship is what really drives the best elements of this story as it embodies their cultural preservation tearing their relationship apart. There are plenty of touch and go moments that certainly make you worry how things will end, especially as Zed’s condition worsens. Both Ahmed and Khan deliver performances full of pain and pride that are endlessly captivating to watch. Ultimately though, the film sees them come together for a heartfelt conclusion. The final scene of Zed’s music bringing them together really allows for their bond to finally grow and makes for a fitting close to Zed and Bashir’s arc.
“Mogul Mowgli” continues Ahmed’s triumphs with how it showcases another layer to his ability that many likely aren’t aware of and wraps his rapping prowess with a deeply personal story of pride and preservation.