Berlinale ’20 – ‘Mogul Mowgli’ is a Hypnotic Story of Self-Discovery

Multi-hyphenate Riz Ahmed delivers a strong physical performance as a rapper struggling with a degenerative illness on the eve of his potential breakthrough into the mainstream. Whose move back to the family home triggers a reexamination of his own relationship with both his parents and his culture. 

Zed (Ahmed), or Zaheer to his family, is on the brink of stardom. After a successful show in New York he is asked to support a large artist on his US tour, a break that has been long in the making. With a break in his schedule, and after a messy end to a long term relationship, Zed returns to Wembley after a two year absence, but ends up staying longer than planned when he is diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disease that puts his plans permanently on hold. Clashing with his family on everything from the brand new, unopened washing machine that sits in the corner of his parents’ kitchen, to the shortening of his name into “something they gave you”, something his cousin Bilal (Hussain Manawer) sees as a rejection of his cultural heritage, Zaheer struggles with the life he has left behind and the expectations placed on him because of that. 

Under Bassim Tariq’s determined direction Mogul Mowgli bristles with undeniable energy – from the opening concert scene where Zed angrily spits out verses to an excited crowd, to the hallucinations Zed begins to experience as he waits in hospitals, with even the quieter moments humming with an unseen tension as Zed’s dive into his own mind grows stronger and more unexpected. 

As the past, the future and familial history begin to blur together in an unbearable frenetic scenes of intense hallucinations, Zed becomes haunted by both his father’s (Alyy Khan) journey from India to Pakistan during partition spent hiding under blankets and bodies, and the figure of Toba Tek Singh. A Sikh religious figure, Toba Tek Singh is both the name of a Punjabi Pakistan town visited by Singh, and a short story written by Saadat Hasan Manto shortly after the Partition. The conclusion depicts a character stuck between worlds, caught between India and Pakistan, who states that “There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh”. 

Toba Tek Singh, and the mystery man with a veil of colour flowers adorning his head, haunts Zed throughout his hallucinations, a source of terror and intrigue as he lurks in the shadow, drawing Zed ever closer. This unknown character personifies Zed’s own struggles – the child of first generation immigrants, who has been born and raised in Britain, Singh acts as a symbolism of his own conflicting identity. He is not adhering to the traditions of his family to their standard, becoming too Western, but is continually othered by British/American society. 

Anika Summerson’s spinning and disorientating cinematography contributes to the uncanny nature of the film, slickly moving between the real and the imagined with ease. This is not a naturalistic film – it is one that leans full tilt into Pakistani mythology and imagery without ever leaving the audience time to adjust. Ahmed stated in a recent interview with Deadline that “[Him and Tariq] were searching for a grammar of our own.”, refusing to “dumb down” the cultural references. It is a film that is unashamedly about the British Muslim experience, while still portraying the universal theme of an unease about your place in the world. 

Ahmed’s own performance is not one of ego: Zaheer is difficult, self-absorbed, with a tendency to lash out – but Ahmed brings a sorrowful edge to the role, the dreams of a man that were so close to coming true but who was stopped by a cruel universe. His relationship with his more conservative father is at the crux of the film, and Khan manages to elevate the roel about a potential stereotype of the “strict father” with a complex depiction of a father who is struggling with his own understanding of his son’s life. 

Dynamic and confrontational, Mogul Mowgli is the sort of British film that deserves elevation and recognition not just for it’s themes and motivations, but also for the type of filmmaking that should be pushed to succeed in the contemporary British film industry.

by Rose Dymock

Rose is a budding film critic, who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She’s currently living back home in the Black Country in the West Midlands, juggling working full time and trying to break into criticism. She loves thrillers, great female characters, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema. She’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial and she wants a Lord of the Rings tattoo. Find her on twitter @rosedymock or on her website

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