Bassam Tariq’s visceral directorial debut, co-written with Riz Ahmed, screens at the BFI London Film Festival as part of the Dare strand.
Although his cutting lyrics speak provocatively about identity politics, it is not until Zed (Ahmed) returns home after two years on tour that he is called by his real name: Zaheer.
But it is the vulnerability of illness and his decreasing mobility that brings both focus and fragmentation – memories and hallucinations merge to the beat of Qawwali music and are haunted by fervent apparitions of a masked figure – conjuring the unspoken spectre of Partition, which looms large in his father’s unspoken words.
Further bruising Zed’s ego is his nemesis – RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), a young rapper whose face tattoos and crass lyrics bewilder him.
Both a paean to the importance of cultural heritage and a sharply observed reflection on muscle memory, the richness of Tariq’s achievement lies in the details of this heady mosaic.
There have been many movies which address the lives of first-generation British-Asians, but thankfully, Mogul Mowgli is not a rehash of things we’ve seen before.
It is gritty, raw but not a dreary watch and completely redefines the meaning of ‘identity’. The fusion of ‘Mogul’ and ‘Mowgli’ beautifully summarises the dichotomy of Zed’s life.
He is a sovereign of his will and ambitions but is yet lost in a contemporary jungle of questions leading up to his origins and deeper objective in life.
In terms of the technicality aspect, the film strikes gold. The camera work moves with the characters giving an omnipresent.
Tariq’s direction and implementation of symbolism are equally fabulous.
From the chillies burning after warding off the evil eye to a stem cell therapy leaflet on a chair, candid attention is projected by the camera, giving it more prominence and fusing that into the narrative.
Since Zed is hallucinated by a male Qawwali singer, wearing a sehra (flowery headdress), sequences where he imagines this figure becomes quite sinister, connoting how the quest of identity becomes increasingly distressful.
Editing, at this point, is well done because the crisp, slash cuts help in distinguishing between fiction and reality, giving a more abstract feel to the film.
Even scenes when family come round to break their fast for Ramadan, the style of dialogue exchanges, exhibit how integration and identity are always a subject of dinner-table discussions.
As such, rap music plays an instrumental character. Gully Boy recently portrayed rap as a way to break free from a life which is bogged down by the system.
However, the rap in Mogul Mowgli (in a way) focuses on life after breaking out, retracing one’s roots.
There’s a sense of revolution but yet retaining one’s cultural heritage. It is interesting to see the reference of the city ‘Toba Tek Singh’ (which was released by Riz in his album A Long Goodbye).
The city, which is used as a satire on partition in Manto’s short-story, demonstrates the ideology of being stuck between two countries.
In a way, it also represents the middle-ground, amidst a world with limitations and geographical boundaries. Somehow, Zed is a Toba Tek Singh.
Riz Ahmed, who has also co-written the film, is magnificent in his role. Zed just seems like a character that is so personal.
Immediately, we are invested in his character and only a great actor like Riz can have this impact. A landmark performance, in my opinion.
At times, his constant conflict of identity reminded me of Ranbir Kapoor’s Ved in Tamasha.
Alyy Khan as the father Bashir is wonderful. Whilst there is a glimpse of patriarchy in his character, it’s great that he is not the stereotypical overpowering father.
His role is compassionate towards his son and tries to resonate with his circumstances.
There are constant references to his deep-rooted fear from the horrors of 1947 partition, wish I could’ve seen more about this.
Sudha Bhuchar as Nasra, the supportive mother is equally strong. There is more focus on the father-son dynamic, it would’ve been nice to see more about the bond between her and Zed.
Nabhaan Rizwan is strong as RPG. While he is only seen in certain places, his character in a way poses as a subtle threat to his dreams. He’s a talent to look out for.
Through subtleties and various hallucinations, Bassam hints at various issues/topics including a rap-battle about cultural appropriation in hip-hop between different British Black and South-Asian communities.
Such sub-plots do not really transpire into the narrative in any form or shape and are just there to address larger narratives.
Having said that though, one cannot deny that Mogul Mowgli is a brave, cutting-edge and raw aesthetic which acts as a milestone for British-Asian cinema.
It makes one question the meaning of identity in which Riz Ahmed certainly gives a mic-drop performance.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 stars)