Writers: Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed
Director: Bassam Tariq
In the past few years, public discourses on British identity have been trying to shrink its definitions back to pillared buildings, lifeless statues and the selective memories of international warfare. But as Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed demonstrate in their blazing debut feature Mogul Mowgli, modern British identity is a living thing, expanding and changing every day as it absorbs and benefits from the experience of its many communities.
Rapper and spoken-word artist Zed returns to England after a successful couple of years in New York when he is offered the chance to open on tour for a respect artist. Reunited with his family, Zed’s body suddenly fails him and an autoimmune condition affects his muscle strength. Desperate to grasp his one chance of fame, Zed is determined to make the tour but feels suffocated when immersed once more in his British-Pakistani heritage.
Ahmed is one of the most exciting creatives in British film with an award-winning performance career already behind him. He is also one of the London Film Festival’s most eloquent guests, introducing his film via a pre-recorded Zoom interview in which he discusses the complex creation and impact of cultural heritage when his character is attacked by a genetic condition that pits his duel identities against one another, while trying to find his own concept of individualism. That this is Ahmed and documentary-maker Tariq’s feature film debut will surprise anyone who sees the skilled and meaningful Mogul Mowgli.
What could easily have been a maudlin ‘disease-of-the-week’ TV movie becomes instead a fascinating exploration of family obligation, aspiration and the meaning of legacy. Zed’s modest fame means nothing to his devout father who instantly tries to draw his reluctant son back toward a more sensible way of making a living, selling cassette tapes and supporting the family business.
The ways in which Tariq and Ahmed cut the film becomes incredibly exciting as real events are seamlessly interspersed with Zed’s fantasies and hallucinated fears, including a recurring traditional figure of a man in a floral headdress who haunts Zed’s dreams judging his failure to embrace his ‘true’ Pakistani heritage. It keeps Zed’s psychological perspective at the heart of the film and while it does boil down to a simple triumph-over-adversity story, the narrative is enriched by its empathetic and expansive interior perspective.
Snippets from Zed’s last performance in America are interspersed which gives the film its urban, very contemporary feel as he raps about identity. Later he engages in an imagined poetry slam with MC Farce (Khariis Ubiaro) that adds an extra dimension to the Britishness question around cultural appropriation. Lighter humour is provided by a rival, the blingy braces-wearing RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan) who wants to take his place on tour while borrowing Zed’s latest song.
But it is Ahmed’s own performance in the leading role that is so extraordinary, filled with layers of contradiction, expectation, self-doubt and the painful process of regeneration that moves the character through the story. The scene in which he phones his frosty ex-girlfriend is a profoundly beautiful piece of acting, the camera lingering long on his face as hundreds of emotions, thoughts and barriers register in his eyes as hope recoils at Zed’s lowest moment.
A consequence of this very personal angle means the film doesn’t always serve the secondary characters as well, reduced to caricature or two-dimensional MacGuffins that can make the conclusion seem overly simplistic. But it is this division between the individual and the community that drives the film, and while Zed is told repeatedly that he should sacrifice or make way for others, Ahmed and Tariq wonder why. British identity may well be in all those stone edifices we revere but it is also right here in Mogul Mowgli.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October