Mogul Mowgli is an interesting look at the cultural conflicts faced by a British-Pakistani rapper, held back by some screenwriting flaws.
Riz Ahmed is both an astounding talent and a fascinating figure. From his advocacy for appropriate representation of Muslim characters in film and television to his background as a rapper to his largely superb acting, the Pakistani-Brit occupies a space as a far deeper and more textured performer than most of his acting peers, not dissimilar from a Donald Glover. Like most Americans, he first came onto my radar with nervy, potent performance as the soul of Nightcrawler and remained on my radar with savvy role choices such as Rogue One and The Night Of. He’s done an excellent job of the “one for me, one for them” ethos that allows so many current actors to raise their profile and make a few bucks while creating opportunity to pursue their passion projects. One Venom buys Ahmed the clout to make a few Mogul Mowglis and Sound of Metals.
Mogul Mowgli is the story of a Pakistani-British rapper who has just started to find his big break when he is laid low by an epigenetic illness that impacts his body, much like ALS. Ahmed’s background in hip hop is called to the forefront, as the film is frontloaded with his character’s rap performance. Like many rap songs, the lyrics occupy a space of heightened autobiography. As they might in a musical, the raps allow Zaheer – known to fans as Zed – express his innermost feelings and conflicts in a way natural to the character.
To his credit, the performance – and writing – here are not the sort of hagiography that can often infect screenplays written by actors. Calling to mind the work of Ramy Youssef, Ahmed is interesting in criticizing and questioning if his character, and, by proxy, if he himself has taken the “easy way” by focusing on Western success instead of his Eastern heritage. I don’t think Ahmed is really breaking new ground here, but the film’s specific context helps add to the somewhat formulaic internal conflict. And the simple reality is that Ahmed is potent in the role – when he frets that his career was not all that successful, Ahmed brings a real fury to Zed’s performance. It’s impressive stuff.
The reality is that some scenes in films cannot be viewed the same in a post-COVID world. One moment in Mogul Mowgli really stood out in this regard. Zed’s father oft expresses a distrust, bordering on a disdain, of Western medicine. He advocates for Eastern therapeutic treatments, such as cupping based on the hearsay stories of friends of friends who saw success with the treatments. He questions the intentions, and even the masculinity, of his son’s treating physicians. That they would advocate a treatment that will lead to infertility is a bridge too far – better to risk death than your manhood.
Riz Ahmed wrote the film (along with director Bassam Tariq) and it is hard for me to imagine that he intended for this scene to feel the way it does in 2020. While the film is deeply interested in the conflict between tradition and modernity, and between generations, I don’t believe Ahmed wants the father character to be pushed into the realm of a Trump, Johnson, or Bolsonaro-style anti-science leader. I cannot help but wonder what other movies have new unintended meanings that really only arise while reading the film in our new era.
Unfortunately, the film simply does not come together smoothly, despite Ahmed’s best efforts as a lead. Perhaps most damning is that I’m not certain the illness faced by Ahmed’s Zed was actually necessary to adjust these sort of cultural issues. It allows Ahmed to do the sort of physical performance that can win awards, but it is a manufactured conflict that seems to distract from the more interesting culture clash. Awkward exchanges, especially with his love interest, also mar the film. One line reading sees a character have to straight-facedly ask Zed “for someone who raps so much about where they come from, when was the last time you went home?”. It’s the sort of on the nose writing that I suspect will be cleaned up in future efforts with the quill from Ahmed.
Mogul Mowgli will be screened at the BFI London Film Festival, both in cinemas and online, starting Saturday, 10 October 2020. Click here to view all screenings and book.
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