BFI LFF 2020: Mogul Mowgli (2020)

Mogul Mowgli is a passionate, sincere, deeply felt snapshot of conflicting identity in contemporary Britain, starring Riz Ahmed, a strikingly compelling actor, directed by Bassam Tariq.

East West, home's best?

by Alexa Dalby

Mogul Mowgli

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

This powerful film’s two-word title, Mogul Mowgli, symbolises the tension between Western and Eastern cultures in the identity of second-generation British Asians. It’s also the title of a rap track by Riz Ahmed’s successful Swet Shop Boys. Ahmed is electrifying in Mogul Mowgli, both as an actor and in the scenes of his fiercely angry rap concerts.

Ahmed is Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper returning home to his Pakistani parents (Sudha Bhuchar and Alyy Khan) in London after a successful two years in the US. He’s just about to make the real big time. But at a family gathering he is criticised for his westernisation of his real name Zaheer. And a fight with a strictly observant Muslim fan outside the mosque puts Zed in hospital, where he discovers he has a hereditary degenerative disease.

Zed’s condition deteriorates rapidly: his dreams are thwarted and start slipping away. Both his star role – and his new track – on his next tour are taken over by crude rival rapper Majid (Nabhaan Rizwan). Zed tells his on-off girlfriend (Aiysha Hart) that his experimental treatment will make him infertile. The disabling illness diminishes his sense of self.

Throughout, Zed is haunted by nightmares of the British partition of India in 1947. He has visions of his father’s traumatic train journey from India to the new Pakistan as a child, and hallucinations accompanied by Qawwali music of a fat man with a flower mask representing Toba Tek Singh. It’s unexplained, but this was a place that was ripped apart by partition.

Ahmed co-wrote the film with Karachi-born American-Pakistani documentary director Bassam Tariq, making his first feature. The film is personal, passionate and political – and even darkly funny at times.

Mogul Mowgli explores racism, Islamic observance and father-son relationships. It sets these issues against a background of still-present history. It shows what it means to be the child of immigrants caught between two identities and how the searing pain of partition even years later still ruins so many people’s lives. Zed himself and his deteriorating physical condition personify the destructive legacy of British-Pakistani history.

Mogul Mowgli is a sincere, deeply felt snapshot of contemporary Britain. Riz Ahmed is a strikingly compelling actor. The film is a must-see.

There’s a recorded Q&A with the team behind the film at screening at the BFI Southbank on Saturday, 1 November.

Mogul Mowgli screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 30 October 2020 in the UK.

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