'Mogul Mowgli': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of MOGUL MOWGLI/BBC Films
Straight Outta Multicultural London.

Riz Ahmed plays an aspiring rapper facing a life-or-death crisis in this semi-autobiographical drama.

British screen star Riz Ahmed draws on his side career as a rapper and musician in Mogul Mowgli, a semi-autobiographical drama that he co-wrote with New York-based director Bassam Tariq. Backed by multiple sources, including the BBC and Vice Studios, this Berlinale world premiere is thoughtfully crafted and thematically rich, even if it feels a little too opaquely personal in places. Building on roles in Nightcrawler, Rogue One, Venom and an Emmy-wining star turn on the HBO miniseries The Night Of, Ahmed's growing profile should help this modestly scaled passion project find an audience following its Berlin launch.

In Nikesh Shukla's 2016 essay anthology The Good Immigrant, Ahmed writes with frustration about his search for roles that transcend stereotype and reflect his layered complexity as a 21st century British-Pakistani Muslim. A year later, he argued for a deeper understanding of diversity onscreen in a speech at Britain's Houses of Parliament, which gave rise to the so-called “Riz Test” of Muslim representation in film, an informal measure akin to the Bechdel Test. With Mogul Mowgli, it feels feels like Ahmed has now risen to the challenge himself, creating and inhabiting a role that reflects his own multilingual, dual-heritage, code-switching identity without being defined by it.

Ahmed stars as Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper based in New York. On the eve of a potentially life-changing tour across Europe, Zed returns to see his family in their modest home in suburban West London. Fond feelings and old stories are shared, with home movie footage from Ahmed's own childhood adding to the biographical resonance. Even so, long-standing lifestyle tensions still hang in the air between Zed, his loving but conservative father Bashir (Alyy Khan) and more religiously devout relatives.

More ominously, during this rare homecoming, Zed begins to suffer sporadic leg pains that prove to be harbingers of a more serious crisis. Following a comically fraught confrontation with an alleged fan, who resorts to racial slurs when he is gently rebuffed, Zed wakes up in hospital with a life-threatening auto-immune system condition. After agreeing to experimental therapy that could end his career and will likely render him impotent, he sinks into an anxious fever dream of childhood memories and surreal hallucinations, struggling to reconnect with his family roots and draw sustenance from cultural values that he has largely rejected.

Handsome and intense, Ahmed is a reliably magnetic screen presence, while his punchy real-life chops as a rapper and lyricist also serve him well here. But his screenwriting skills are less assured, and Mogul Mowgli is strangely low on dramatic or emotional bite given its high-stakes storyline. Baggy editing, underexplained context and flat dialogue add to this muted effect. Some of the cultural references, including repeated chants of “Toba Tek Singh,” a city in the Punjab named after a legendary Sikh religious figure, will also mean little to audiences outside the South Asian community.

That said, there are welcome flashes of humor here, notably the scenes involving Zed's dim-witted rap rival RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), plus some potentially timely thematic tangents, including a battle rap about cultural appropriation in hip-hop between different British racial minorities. Ahmed and Tariq never explore the full potential of these subplots, however, mostly keeping their focus on Zed's private struggles at the expense of wider social comment and deeper characterization.

Annika Summerson's cinematography has its lyrical moments, especially during the flashback sequences, but the visuals are mostly prosaic and televisual, an effect reinforced by the boxy aspect ratio and mundane interior locations. Although Mogul Mowgli is an admirably ambitious effort overall, a more complex, colorful, daring film seems to be trapped just below the surface.

Production companies: Pulse Films, Silvertown Films, Left Handed Films
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Anjana Vasan, Aiysha Hart, Sudha Bhuchar, Nabhaan Rizwan, Hussain Manawer, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Jeff Mirza
Director: Bassam Tariq
Screenwriters: Riz Ahmed, Bassam Tariq
Producers: Thomas Benksi, Bennett McGhee, Riz Ahmed, Michael Peay
Cinematographer: Annika Summerson
Editors: Adam Biskupski, Hazel Baillie
Music: Paul Corley
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Charades, Paris

90 minutes