Directing his debut feature, Bassam Tariq captures in Mogul Mowgli a man in perpetual motion. His protagonist, British-Pakistani grime MC Zed (Riz Ahmed), cannot give way to stillness or the weight of what he is fleeing will crash down on him with full force. Introduced spitting bars from the stage at a packed-out New York show, he bobs and weaves, twisting and gesturing as if in rapture, escaping into movement. A film concerned with the knotty intersection of transnational identity, personal ambition and familial obligation, Mogul Mowgli is about what happens to a man like that when the movement stops, forcibly taken from him by the sudden emergence of an autoimmune disease. Enforced stillness enforces personal reflection in Zed, and what emerges is a feverishly energetic character study bolstered by visual flair and a sterling lead performance, even when it falls short of true insight.
Tariq and Ahmed share writing credits on the feature, with the latter mining his own personal experiences as a rapper under the moniker Riz MC with hip-hop duo the Swet Shop Boys. This authentically-cultivated expertise is key to building up Zed as a convincing artist — his bars are acrobatic and “clever-clever,” with an instant impact as they land glancing blows on the experiences of the children of Pakistani immigrants in the UK. But, as with the anxious energy that keeps his physical self moving ahead, the linguistic acrobatics cover for a lack of substance. For all the bluster of paying tribute to where he’s “from,” Zed can’t deny the fact that he hasn’t actually been “home” to his parents’ house in suburban London for two years, as girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) points out while dumping him.
Movement is crucial to Zed’s self-preservation in all corners of his life at this early stage, whether it’s physical, verbal or even geographical and metaphysical. He jumps at a chance to take a support slot on the European tour of a more successful rapper, regardless of its consequences for his relationship with Bina, and he moves quickly and rashly to secure the next stepping-stones in his career to keep ahead of his Oedipal competition — upstart trap artist RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan in a goofily affectionate send-up of Lil Yachty, Migos and their face-tattooed ilk). Tariq’s camera moves quickly to keep up with Zed, untethered, handheld and skittish as it darts after him, establishing a frenetic energy pushed further by the itchy trigger-fingers of editors Adam Biskupski and Hazel Baillie.
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Flying to London before his tour begins, Zed dips into his family home in Wembley for what he intends to be a brief, perfunctory visit, but his fleet-footedness is violently undercut when a benign discomfort in his right leg proliferates into fully-fledged, aggressive muscular atrophy. Zed is practically paralysed, and as impotent to change is own fortunes as he is to lift his arms or get himself out of bed. Stranded in sterile hospital rooms under grueling rehab regimes, his unfocused, restless energy comes to bear as psychological torment — where Ahmed physically becomes immobile and helpless, Tariq keeps up the energy in film’s language, as zippiness and momentum mutates into queasy restlessness and paranoia. Without crowds of adoring fans or fawning publicists, left with the relative, howling quiet of his family’s worry and judgement, Zed descends into hallucinatory episodes that run parallel with a long-overdue reconciliation with the historical weight that comes with his cultural heritage.
As Zed becomes increasingly surrounded by imagined, but totemic, demons, Tariq deploys frenetic whip-pans, jump-cuts and handheld backed up by a delirious score from Paul Corley which morphs grimey drum and bass with towers of atonal synth and traditional instrumentation to build a beastly soundscape. Unable to move through the physical realm, Zed rattles through scenes of his own and his family’s histories spanning from his childhood back to the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Through these dreams, he is stalked by the ghoulish Toba Tek Singh, a raving wild man bedecked in flowers growling scripture and demanding penance from Zed.
Whenever he is pulled back to reality, the stillness is nigh-unbearable, with painstaking long takes and meandering group dialogue reinforcing Zed’s docility. His masculinity takes a further knock as the treatment for his condition is likely to render him infertile, playing into his own expectations of manhood and also those of his father Bashir (Alyy Khan), who essentially embodies Toba Tek Singh in the real world as a monolithic, if noticeably more empathetic, voice for the culture and responsibility with which Zed (whose birth name, Zaheer, he has essentially abandoned) refuses to engage. Ahmed is excellent in these tricky scenes, giving a multi-faceted, fidgety performance while barely moving a muscle. His co-stars cannot quite rise to his level of intricacy, but the dialogue provides an acute balance of light relief and genuine pathos that keeps things ticking along nicely.
Similarly to its lead, Mogul Mowgli indicates its awareness of the big themes tied to the experiences of young British-Pakistani men, but doesn’t quite do all the legwork required to properly manifest a thesis. Joining the annals of high-calibre BBC Films productions highlighting segments of British culture often ignored on the big screen, it effectively throws up a number of worthwhile talking points, makes a sterling calling card for the technical abilities of its director and provides an insight into a specific way of life that might be unfamiliar to many. It’s also a lot of fun, from the propulsive joys of watching Ahmed freestyle to the gentle sweetness of Zed’s mother (Sudha Bhuchar) devotedly listening to all of her son’s tracks despite being entirely disinterested with the genre at large. Centred by a performance which further confirms Ahmed’s bona fides as a leading man, Mogul Mowgli has energy to spare, but it could do with a mite more stillness to find its truest self.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.