2020 | Dir. Bassam Tariq | 89 minutes
Reviewed by Zoë Mills
Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of Riz Ahmed! In preparing to review Mogul Mowgli, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to resist turning the whole write-up into one long rant about how incredibly hot—I mean talented—the man is. However, this 2020 drama packs such a dazzling cast that the Oscar-nominated actor is hardly the main event.
The film (co-written by Riz Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq) follows Zed, a British rapper who has just scored his first world tour. Weeks before he’s set to jet off, Zed takes a quick, guilt-induced trip home to Wembley and is diagnosed with a debilitating and degenerative disease.
Ahmed’s Zed spits rhymes at rapid speed (the actor has performed as a real-life MC since his mid-teens). His lyrics ricochet from thought to thought, but each hard-hitter is fired from a place of shame and confusion in his cultural identity.
Growing up in the UK as the child of Pakistani immigrants, Zed uses music to question and critique his ethnicity. The crowd hollers in approval, but his parents aren’t at the show. In fact, Zed hasn’t seen his family in two years.
Alyy Khan stands out as Zed’s father. A man of few words, his body language speaks volumes. Lifting his son off the toilet without hesitation, gripping the wall as he heads downstairs, stumbling as he hurries up them. He delivers both the most gut-wrenching and laugh-out-loud lines of the film.
Hussain Manawer is a pleasure to watch as Bilal, Zed’s devout and macho cousin. He frets over how soft his palms are and pities anyone named Daniel. He reminds Zed that he goes by a white-washed version of his given name, Zaheer. But Zed insists the stage name is a confident choice, not a coverup.
Nabhaan Rizwan and Anjana Vasan are two more stellar members of this robust cast. Rizwan plays the face-tatted MAJID. He slurs his words and stands on a teetering diagonal in the middle of the day, but still, Zed views this amateur rapper as his competition. Vasan plays Zed’s loyal manager, Vaseem. Another person who just can’t convince Zed that his health is more important than his big break.
Mogul Mowgli is a complete sensory experience, making distinct characters out of sight and sound.
Zed’s poetry is knit throughout the film—an almost compulsive stream of opposing, overlapping, and self-destructive ideas. A choir of assaulting sounds fill in the gaps. Fingernails against flakey skin, tearing velcro, headphones blaring against the cold hospital floor.
The film is both visually delightful and maddening. The moon from the window of a fast-moving car. Camcorder footage of a young, attention-loving Zed. Imaginary earthquakes. Corpses covered in ash. Sweaty palms. Hot cups suctioned to swelling skin. A veiled figure that stalks our sickly protagonist. Showing up in his mosque, his dreams, the window of his childhood home, and in the corner of the room during his physical therapy sessions.
Honest characters, hypnotic visuals, and piercing sound work together to create a film that’s designed to disorient.
Mogul Mowgli is a stunning and ambitious picture that puts the viewer in Zed’s overburdened body as he comes to understand his disease, his identity, and his legacy.