Mogul Mowgli Review (BFI London Film Festival 2020)

Mogul Mowgli’s hard-hitting, deeply personal exploration of identity, Pakistani culture and family leaves a lasting impression long after the credits roll, thanks in no small part to its leading man, Riz Ahmed, who hits career-best form.

He plays Zed, an aspiring rapper on the cusp of his first world tour, struck by a debilitating illness that threatens his career and life as he knows it. Meanwhile, he grapples with his family’s expectations of him as a Muslim, and his own place within the culture in which he was raised and how his music and image fits within it. With his ill health breeding self-doubt, he becomes prone to surreal dreamscapes in which he faces embodiments of his fears, his every move watched on by a man whose face is covered in flowers.

Riz Ahmed as Zed.

Though the film veers into Zed’s disorientated mindset to varying degrees of success, it’s at its most confident when leaning fully into the sobering reality of his situation, allowing Ahmed to tackle the complexities of his character’s struggles with a moving subtlety. Physically, as Zed tries to recover from the loss of movement in his legs, and mentally, as he comes to terms with his fading aspirations of going on tour and the toll of his treatment on his body, Ahmed wrings every ounce of his characters’ struggle out onto the screen.

On a surface level, it’s losing his ability to perform (and the idea of being usurped by preposterous rival musician RPG (“Without Apartheid, there’d be no Nando’s chicken”)) that drives Zed’s inner turmoil, but the film makes it clear that his reckoning with who he is away from his music is just as great a cause for self-discovery. His culture – reflected in the living room conversations with his family, in sessions of prayer, in his mother and father’s borderline overbearing parenting, in the fluid use of language which lays bare his family’s ties to both England and Pakistan – contradict with how he outwardly portrays himself – in his lyrics, in his viewpoint on religion, even with his name. Ultimately, it’s not with Zed in front of a crowd (the staging of these scenes ironically one of the film’s weaker elements), but rather in exploring the contradictions in his personality, and the disconnect between who he is, where he’s from, and who he wants to be, that Mogul Mowgli shines brightest.

Rating (out of 5):

***

Mogul Mowgli is part of the programme at the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

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