Mogul Mowgli - LFF 2020
"It’s a fascinating look at the tug-of-war many feel between identity and culture."
Mogul Mowgli feels deeply personal. It should. It’s been a labour of love for Riz Ahmed, who stars in the central role and wrote the script alongside director Bassam Tariq. It’s a fascinating look at the tug-of-war many feel between identity and culture. The scenario plays out here as up-and-coming rapper Zed (real name Zaheer) finds his dreams shattered after discovering he has a chronic auto-immune disease. As his familial bonds are put to the test, he’s forced into a frustrating and seemingly hopeless box, where his grip on who he truly is gets tested at every turn. Riz Ahmed’s stunning central performance aside, the film delves once too often into the surreal and metaphorical. I’ll admit, many scenarios were incomprehensible, but perhaps that comes from a place of cultural ignorance. If this year’s London Film Festival is going to be about anything, it’s challenging everyone’s perceptions.
Zed’s story begins riding high on a stage in New York before he’s ushered back to the realms of London. His Pakistani upbringing is front and centre almost immediately. His mother refuses to open the new washing machine he bought for her. His dad is focused on his career at the restaurant. What’s clear is that the success Zed has found so far, has not strengthened his ties at home. At a family gathering he is chastised for allowing himself to be called ‘Zed’, a name that was handed to him. He argues he owns it, it’s argued back that he doesn’t. Perception. He’s challenged by a ‘fan’ after a visit to the mosque, who both confuses him for another rapper yet chews him out for not being real enough to remember his place in the mosque.
"Mogul Mowgli feels deeply personal."
It becomes more and more apparent that Zed’s upbringing is completely at odds with the identity he is trying to craft for himself. It’s also no coincidence that his return home coincides with the devastating diagnosis that he now has to live with a chronic auto-immune disease which immediately stops his musical career dead in its tracks. As he walks the long road to recovery he’s haunted by a mythical figure who seemingly taunts him in a series of surreal dreamscapes. These scenes are the weakest. They offer little to the story as far as I can tell and slow the pacing down. Far better are the scenes which focus on Zed interacting directly with his dad as they decide whether Western or Eastern medicine is the answer. Or the scene where Zed is face to face with his ‘rival’ rapper RPG. RPG represents another path Zed could have walked, one who raps about ‘pussy fried chicken’. Zed, for all his trail blazing efforts at forging his own identity, is consciously switched on. A fictional Akala-like rapper, whose lyrics reflect his discontent with his place in the world but also his determination not to deny who he is. Contrast ‘pussy fried chicken’ with lyrics like ‘I ain’t got no roots to put down, I’m pulling the weeds up’, for example.
"It becomes more and more apparent that Zed’s upbringing is completely at odds with the identity he is trying to craft for himself."
Zed’s true feelings come out in his rapping. All his frustration and all his turmoil. What he’s never, for a second, is confused. This is what’s so refreshing. He’s not at any point unsure of who he is. He knows exactly what he wants and what is meant for him. The cultural politics around him are outside of his control. Zed knows who he is, he doesn’t care who he was expected to be. But these are the forces he must take on in his journey back to health and back to where he belongs. There’s a particularly poignant line where in anger Zed shouts at his parents ‘You poisoned me with this shit!’. It’s hard to work out if he’s talking about the literal blood in his veins, or the very culture he came from.
For all the turmoil there’s hope. There’s a certain power in Zed’s way of life, what he has made for himself and who he is. It certainly doesn’t sugar coat a single thing, but it goes to show that even in hardship we can find solace in knowing who we are and who we want to be. Maybe, just maybe, the people we expect to understand us the least are the ones who end up understanding us the most.