Riz Ahmed gives the performance of his career in Mogul Mowgli, a stirring drama about culture and community in the face of debilitating ill-health.
Riz Ahmed stars in Mogul Mowgli, but his contributions to the film far exceed that. Yes, he also co-produced and co-wrote it with its director, Bassam Tariq, but that doesn’t quite cover it either. Ahmed performs – impressively, as it happens – the film’s culturally aware rap lyrics, bickers with the actors who represent his character’s family, friends, and loved ones, and eventually begins to wither in a hospital as his inevitable superstardom is wrenched away from him. For as long as it lasts, Ahmed lives in this movie, and when it ends, it feels as if he left a part of himself behind in it. He’s carrying a deeply personal and layered drama on his shoulders, and yet as his character becomes more cowed and atrophied, Ahmed handles the burden more adroitly than ever. It’s the best performance of his career.
This is just as well since a lot of Mogul Mowgli wouldn’t work without him, and barely does even when he’s there. As it descends deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole of surreal metaphorical visions, it can get a bit full of itself, a bit lost in its own profundity, even if the essential truth of what the film’s saying about cultural identity and selfhood remains powerful. In other words, as the film disappears inside its protagonist’s head, it also gets a bit up its own arse.
That protagonist is British-Pakistani rapper Zed, a major hit overseas for his conscious and deeply personal content. He’s on the verge of global superstardom and is planning a US tour to help facilitate that. For the film to work, we have to believe this is possible, and so we get snippets of Zed’s music all the time, recitations of his lyrics either to himself or a crowd, although his performances are always, or at least usually, shot to minimize the onlookers and emphasize Zed himself, better to put across how his material is so specific to him and also, one assumes, to save some production money. Ahmed capably sells all of this. The raps work. The illusion is maintained. We buy-in.
The problem for Zed is that so many people have bought in that he himself might have sold out. On the advice of his American girlfriend, he uses the time before the tour to visit his family and friends back in Wembley, London, whom he hasn’t seen for two years and who, in his absence, have begun to lament his time away, resent his success, and consider him that most damning of things: a coconut. (Brown on the outside, white on the inside… you get the idea.) Sudha Bhuchar and Alyy Khan play Zed’s parents, and they shine in some of the uncomfortable reunion scenes as after-dinner talk turns to testy subjects like Zed’s lengthy trips and his stage moniker, a more palatable abbreviation of a real name his parents worked hard and risked plenty to give him.
Just as Zed is being forced to reckon with this, he’s also admitted to hospital and diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that’s going to atrophy his muscles, cancel his tour, and likely ruin his career, and the potential therapy to combat it might well make him infertile. It’s a lot to deal with, and Zed’s way of doing so is to retreat – sometimes willingly, sometimes not – into his own personal history and the broader British and Pakistani cultural context it fits within. While he’s beset in the real world by the threat to his livelihood and the horrifying notion that a rival rapper, Majid (Nabhaan Rizwan), might perform some of his material in his stead, he’s also forced to grapple with history, confronted regularly by a masked figure who regales him with the history of the 1947 partition that divided British India into India and Pakistan.
It’s existing at this complicated cultural intersection that gives Zed his powerful lyrics and Mogul Mowgli itself legs as a fable about never forgetting where you come from and what it means to go back there. But the film is about many things besides that, including artistic compromise, personal and familial legacy – tackled mostly through that Faustian infertility pact; you can have success or children, but not both – and the weight of expectation. Three of my favorite scenes in the film highlight how versatile it can be at its best. In one, Zed negotiates with Majid, who he despises because of his facial tattoos and thoughtless content, about taking on his material, and the latter tries to draw a connection between Apartheid and Nandos. In another, Zed, tasked with masturbating into a cup for the purposes of freezing his sperm, calls his girlfriend for help – to mixed results. And in perhaps the best, Zed imagines himself, still in his hospital gown, in a rap battle with a Black rapper that exemplifies how treacherous the contemporary British experience can be, even for those who’re themselves minorities. The rules are not the same, and once the assumptions begin, you might never get the chance to say what you really meant. (If this scene worked for you, watch the tremendous Bodied, which I’m still trying to turn people onto.)
All of this is deeply felt, oftentimes very powerful, and amounts to a film that has many valuable things to say – but also one that is sometimes, I suppose ironically since it’s about a rapper, unsure of how best to say them.