As a start to the London Film Festival 2020, Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli is about as good as it gets. Covering any kind of festival during a pandemic can be written off as unnecessary and untimely, but if the last six months has shown us anything, it’s the opposite: we need arts and the film industry more than ever. It’s what makes us feel like human beings. There have been a crop of brilliant reviews from our coverage of this year’s NYFF, and with this year’s virtual LFF accessible to a wider audience via online and regional screenings, it promises to spread the love of film even further.
In Mogul Mowgli, Riz Ahmed plays a Pakistani rapper, Z, who, on the brink of fame and a European tour, is diagnosed with a debilitating illness. After enjoying success in America, he visits his home in London after two years and faces uncomfortable decisions about his heritage, his personal history, and his future. Not least of these is his decision to go by the abbreviation of his full name, Zaheer. The result is a poignant look at a man from mixed backgrounds considering his heritage, legacy, and the true meaning of success.
Director: Bassam Tariq
Rating: Not yet rated
Release date: October 10, 2020 (LFF)
Like many first-generation British-Pakistanis, Zaheer feels disconnected from his Asian roots. Although he raps about his family’s history in a grand spectacle on stage, privately he’s struggling to keep his relationship together, and his family barely knows who he is. For him, culture and history are performative (in the most literal sense of the word); something to appropriate, but not to live out.
There are riffs on the familiar Muslim traditions, and at one point Zaheed smokes a joint outside during an evening prayer ritual. A local man starts up a conversation, recognising him as a famous artist, but the conversation soon sours. In fact, it’s over a tiny detail — the man tells Zaheed to offer him the joint from his right hand, not his left, according to tradition — and this spirals into a fight when Zaheed doesn’t want to bring his cultural roots into his everyday life. In a recent interview with Graham Norton, Ahmed explained how he wanted to incorporate the idea of being both an insider and an outsider into the character.
When Zaheed returns home, he laughs at his family’s traditions — looking back at old cassette tapes over which he’d recorded music as a teenager, he is bemused by the traditional Muslim prayer on the cassette sleeve. It’s the figure he first sees here — a man dressed in a sehra, a wreath of flowers traditionally worn by a groom on his wedding day — that keeps coming back to haunt him in his dreams as he falls ill and is admitted to hospital.
Mogul Mowgli is an unusually hallucinogenic trip through one man’s experience. The cinematic qualities of Bassam Tariq’s filmmaking are especially clear in sequences in the hospital when Zaheer sees and hears people that aren’t really there, augmenting his extra-sensory perceptions. The motif of the groom wearing a sehra is repeated, not only representing Zaheed’s memories of weddings he attended as a young boy, but also his father’s history. The purpose of the sehra is firstly to ward off the ‘evil eye’ — Zaheed’s family firmly believes this to be the case surrounding his illness — but also to prevent a bride and groom from seeing each other before they are married. There’s something, therefore, that feels ‘unfinished’ about Zaheed’s life when he confronts these hallucinations.
Questioned, too, are the notions of traditional masculinity: whether or not manhood is measured by the number of children or the family you have, or defined by what you achieve as an individual. Eastern and Western assumptions collide throughout the film, and it’s apparent that Zaheed’s visit home to his Punjabi-speaking family is at odds with his fast-paced world.
Riz Ahmed has always been a talented performer, but he shines in the role. He seems to be able to capture the state of a man caught in flux, and when his father (played by Alyy Khan) has to become his caregiver, the pair convincingly act as if they have become a father and young son again. Their relationship, more so than the mother-son relationship usually given more prominence in these settings, is especially moving.
The father is an interesting character because he’s given more development than a supporting character in a 90-minute feature usually is. He suffers PTSD after a traumatic journey involving a massacre on his way from Pakistan in his youth. While he has retold the story to the family many times, it’s still a source of grief and pain. Many of Zaheed’s hallucinations seem to echo the memories of his father, showing their pseudo-spiritual bond.
With such a powerful portrayal of a degenerative muscle condition and its effect on the patient and family, it’s easy to think about how we take our health for granted. Throughout the film, characters continuously encourage Zaheed to think about what’s important in life and to focus on his family. But the true tragedy is not that his career and tour are in jeopardy, but that he is lonely. Despite the efforts of his family, Zaheed is always pushing them away. He struggles to keep his relationship with an American woman, Bina, afloat, and even his friends begin to see another side to him.
The film is subtle and only takes place in a few locations, the domestic and the hospital taking up most screen time. There are unexpectedly heartbreaking moments as Zaheed fails to do basic tasks himself, watching his independence slip away. Mogul Mowgli is not the sort of film to watch and shelve. Bassam Tariq has achieved both a universal insight into questions of aging, legacy, and values; while also making it deeply specific and personal.