Today: May 22, 2024

Mogul Mowgli

With Halloween just around the corner, Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed’s raw and powerful – and deeply flawed – Mogul Mowgli presents an alternative to the usual horror fare. Focusing on the very real demons of Zed, a young British-Pakistani rapper, and his journey with a degenerative disease that threatens to put an abrupt end to his career, the film is a dark and difficult watch.

Mogul Mowgli is primarily a study of identity, with the title coming from a song by Swet Shop Boys (a group which Ahmed is a member of, under the moniker Riz MC) that deals with this theme. “The song’s about being torn between different sides of your identity, being descended from moguls and rich heritage”, Ahmed says, “but living as Mowgli, lost in the urban jungle far away from the village that was once home.” The film, co-written and produced by Ahmed, is a very passionate albeit abrasive film that confronts its audience to explore family ties and cultural identity fronted by a staggering and raw performance by Ahmed in what his certainly the finest of his career to date.

Haunted by hallucinations and dream sequences that we learn explore the childhood experiences of Zed’s father (a brilliant Alyy Khan), Mogul Mowgli’s attempts to be a study of the things we inherit and that shape our lives – be it physical, like the hereditary illness he battles, or otherwise. But while the film’s messages are at times well-handled and executed strongly, the film does often feel a little aimless. Despite a short runtime of 85 minutes, the film still feels drawn out and sometimes even rather tedious, with a heavy-handed approach in portraying its themes while also being overly simplistic in narrative. 

But this is Ahmed’s film through-and-through. His on-stage performance scenes are bombastic and raw, as he spits the lines of his poetry with such conviction that it is no wonder the actor is also a successful musician. The performance scenes are also thrillingly shot by cinematographer Annika Summerson, injecting an urgency to his performances by getting right there on the stage with him. But it is the quieter scenes of Ahmed dealing with his illness – one sequence in particular has him calling up his ex-girlfriend and finally admitting he is scared, and it’s among the film’s most powerful and intense moments. His brave and uncompromising work here has got awards season written all over it, so don’t be surprised to see Ahmed’s name cropping up early next year when nominations are unveiled.

Mogul Mowgli is an incredibly performed character study, but anything beyond that is rather lacking. As a study of cultural identity and family, it often feels a little too in-your-face to be wholly effective, spoon-feeding the film’s messages when an actor of Ahmed’s immense talent could have just as well communicated them with his eyes alone. The film is also rather disappointing on a narrative level, doing very little with the ‘fighting an illness’ subgenre that hasn’t been done before. But ultimately, this is the Riz Ahmed show, and as a vehicle for him to flex both his musical and acting chops, it is mesmerising. If not for him, Mogul Mowgli would not be worth your time.

Mogul Mowgli is in cinemas from 30 October; to experience the world of the film, head to Near the Jugular, a season of inspirational and influential films chosen by Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed, is running at BFI Southbank and on BFI Player until 30 November.

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