Bassam Tariq’s new film (his first since 2013 documentary These Birds Walk) is clearly a passion project for both its director and its star, Riz Ahmed, who also co-wrote and produced it himself. Having first premiered at the Berlinale back in February, Mogul Mowgli (which gets its title from a track by Swet Shop Boys, Ahmed’s own hip hop group), tells the story of British-Pakistani rapper Zed, who suddenly comes down with an autoimmune disease just as he’s about to get his big break, with young RPG waiting in the wings to fill his spot on an upcoming tour.
Of course, this isn’t what the film is really about. In truth, this is a story of a young man reconnecting with his family and rediscovering his roots. Having spent some time in America, Zed is constantly accused by his loved ones of having westernised himself, at one point even referred to as a ‘coconut’. They believe Zed to have forgotten where he comes from, or worse still, to be ashamed of it. This belief is only worsened when Zed undergoes dangerous treatment, which his father strongly disapproves of.
Mogul Mowgli would be nowhere near as successful were it not for Riz Ahmed, who lives and breathes every second of it. Already a vastly underappreciated actor, he’s arguably never been this committed to a role in his career. It’s clearly so personal to him; an exploration of his own culture and community, and it almost feels like he’s letting go of a weight on his shoulders. Perhaps the role he was born to play, Ahmed has never been better. (Sudha Bhuchar and Alyy Khan also deserve a special mention for their outstanding work as Zed’s parents).
It’s in the film’s hallucinogenic sequences that it begins to lose itself a little. While interesting at first (harkening back to the 1947 partition of India), they’re just a little overplayed. All too often, Tariq crosses the line into experimental cinema, and it just doesn’t mesh enough with the raw, authentic tone of the rest of the film. Perhaps it’s intentional, but it all seems a little confused and self-important.
For the most part, Mogul Mowgli is shot with real vigour. Erratic in nature, it’s cleverly presented in academy ratio, masterfully visualising the metaphorical walls closing in on Zed’s life. It’s claustrophobic and uncomfortable, as is undoubtedly intended, yet full of energy and sincerity.
The film isn’t consistent enough and it does begin to fade away in the third act, but it’s also mindful, driven, multi-layered and unashamedly personal, with Ahmed continuing to prove himself as one of Britain’s most exciting acting talents.
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