As producer, writer, and lead actor of Mogul Mowgli, Riz Ahmed is undoubtedly hugely passionate about this project and working in collaboration with Pakistani-American documentary director Bassam Tariq on his first narrative feature, there is an overwhelming ambition to this film that is at times staggering and at others bewildering.
Ahmed plays “Zed”, a British-Pakistani rapper who seems to be on the cusp of his big break. After hearing that he has the opportunity to open for another artist on his European tour, Zed heads home to London to see his estranged family, however whilst there he is struck down by a debilitating illness that threatens the tour.
At its core, Mogul Mowgli is a film about culture-clash which explores the idea of never feeling fully part of one particular culture, and how often it can be family and conflicting beliefs and practices that can weigh you down. We see this manifest when Zed is struggling with the effects of a recently diagnosed auto-immune disease. The crippling illness perhaps represents that sense of being bogged down, immobile in the very place you are trying to get away from.
Zed’s struggle goes beyond his physical ailments as well, frequently haunted and tortured by fragmented snapshots of his childhood and elements of his culture that he has both selectively appropriated to further his career, and desperately tried to get away from. Particularly prevalent in his feverish hallucinations is the figure of “Toba Tek Singh”, taking its name from a short story about the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. In this satirical story, the character of Bishan Singh mutters a mixture of Punjabi, Urdu, and English, and represents the idea of being without a homeland; it is this idea which is particularly prevalent in Mogul Mowgli.
His relatives mock “Zed” for leaving behind his birth name (Zaheer), and he also encounters a fan who labels him a “coconut”, a derogatory term particularly used in the South Asian community to describe someone who is brown on the outside but acts white on the inside. This idea of not feeling a particular sense of belonging to either culture is where the film is strongest and whilst it does frequently succeed in painting these struggles, it also frequently misses the point entirely.
The film seems to be unnecessarily preoccupied in strange allegory, and whilst it is bold and ambitious and should be commended for at least going there, it doesn’t always land exactly where it needs to, and that is a shame. It’s vision is unique, and at times this feels really exciting, but it also feels muddled and tonally confused.
That being said, Riz Ahmed is absolutely fantastic as the conflicted Zed. When he is performing, he is magnetic, full of bite and a passion that is totally believable. Offstage, Ahmed is able to tap into the insecurities of the character, showing the pain he is in not just physically, but also affronted by the mental anguish of seeing his dreams slip away from him.
When it works, Mogul Mowgli really works, but it is tonally inconsistent and frequently restrained by having so much ambition without a singular vision to channel this into. What it does prove however, is that Riz Ahmed is a remarkable talent, and whether it is in front of the camera or in the writers room, anything he does is always going to be worth a watch.