Having received press accreditation for my first ever film festival, the 2020 BFI London Film Festival I have been really excited to see a wide variety of films from all over the globe. The first film that I checked out was the debut feature, Mogul Mowgli by Pakistani-American director, Bassam Tariq who co-wrote the script with the film’s lead, Riz Ahmed. The film follows Zed (Ahmed), a British-Pakistani rapper who is on the cusp of fame when he is suddenly struck down by an unknown autoimmune disease. The film is an intricate look into identity and how becoming successful can cause conflict within oneself. The result is a mesh of culture intertwined with the fight to break out of the bodily harm Zed is faced with while discovering who he actually is. Zed’s Pakistani heritage is presented through dreams and hallucinations he has of a man whose face is shrouded by a veil of flowers.
Riz Ahmed’s performance is a fantastic standout and shows his ability to lead a film. A lot of Ahmed’s film roles in mainstream blockbusters have been supporting but hopefully he will be advanced to leading roles with the release of this phenomenal performance. From the opening scene in which we see Zed rap to himself which then turns out to be a successful gig performance to his eventual collapse and stay in hospital due to his autoimmune disease, Zed is put through a whole spectrum of emotions. We see the joy as he is booked to open for a famous rapper on his European tour followed by the disappointment as he learns that he is being replaced by a rapper who is known for his song “Pussy Fried Chicken”. It should also be noted that Ahmed’s rapping is impeccable and has that spontaneous feeling incorporating wordplay and build-ups in his raps, successfully telling Zed’s story. Zed’s journey is one of many layers from his physical deterioration to the clash between who he wants to be and his heritage. He raps about his heritage and his experience growing up as a Muslim in Britain but as pointed out by his girlfriend at the start, he hasn’t gone back to Britain in years. How can he talk about the importance of his family and heritage if he has become so detached from them? The film’s sole focus on Zed can be a put off for some but I love a character study and it works well in my opinion.
The supporting cast does a great job and helps the audience with gaining that rounded view of Zed. Every character has some link to Zed whether it be his family or his colleagues in the music industry. The standout support in my opinion is Alyy Khan who plays Zed’s father, Bashir. Seen as a voice of reason and a respected figure in his family, Bashir is a man who would do anything to secure the safety of his family. His story of travelling to Pakistan from India by hiding under clothes when he was younger is shown in parallel to the events of the film. Zed’s struggle with his identity has some similarities with Bashir leaving his home country. Khan’s performance is subtle and calming and yet can also be firm at times. The scene in which he helps Zed in the bathroom makes for an emotional father/son moment. The reactions of both characters is very authentic as Zed is reluctant to ask for help and Bashir also feels uncomfortable as they try to navigate their way in the tiny space.
The highlight of this film besides Ahmed’s performance is the script co-written by Tariq and Ahmed. It’s a tight script filling the 90 minute feature and there was plenty of space for more. Together, they managed to write a script that conveyed the chaos going on in Zed’s life showing the numerous conflicts he has on the surface as well as emotionally. As Zed flits in and out of consciousness through his fights and seizures, the script becomes a product of magic realism. The scenes featuring Toba Tek Singh become symbolic and haunting as he grows more aggressive with each appearance. Eventually, Zed acknowledges the meaning of Singh and what he represents in these dreams. One scene in which this is presented beautifully takes place in a mosque. Zed prays alongside other men but clearly feels out of place. When he turns around he sees Singh stood beside him and they stare at each other. It’s a scene of no words and yet speaks volumes.
Overall, the film is a poignant look into the search for identity and how one can stay anchored to the heritage and ancestry that came before them. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the film up for some major awards this season, particularly for Ahmed’s performance and the script. The film felt like the joining together of a jigsaw as Zed began to put himself back together as his father’s journey from India to Pakistan is played in parallel to Zed’s own struggles.
Film number one complete and even more reviews to come next week when London Film Festival 2020 continues so stay tuned! Mogul Mowgli will be released in the United Kingdom on 30th October by BFI Distribution. Be sure to check it out if you can!