REVIEW: Mogul Mowgli [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 89 minutes
    Release Date: October 30, 2020 (UK) / September 3rd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: British Film Institute / Strand Releasing
    Director(s): Bassam Tariq
    Writer(s): Riz Ahmed & Bassam Tariq

We weren’t born to be loved.

When the doctor explains Zed’s (Riz Ahmed) auto-immune disease as his body no longer recognizing his body, I instinctively thought, “Oh no.” We had already experienced his internal struggle with identity as a British man with Pakistani roots, Indian heritage, and American sensibilities by way of a solid line separating his worlds that’s augmented by his father’s (Alyy Khan‘s Bashir) refusal to accept his pursuit of a music career and his refusal to stop. Zed is quite literally rapping about his status as a minority while ostensibly grinding to escape that label altogether rather than shine a light upon it. His career therefore no longer recognizes his DNA and using a real disease as metaphor can’t help but unfortunately risk exploiting its real hardship as a plot gimmick.

I’m happy to say, however, that Ahmed (who co-wrote) and writer/director Bassam Tariq avoid letting that inevitability dictate the direction Mogul Mowgli goes. Rather than be a superficial lens with which to experience Zed’s circumstances (he battles this war daily whether through memories of his childhood or what seems like a perpetually cruel hand of fate), they allow it to merely be a mirror for confrontation. Just as you cannot cure an incurable disease to tie your story in a bow, you cannot excise who you are from who you wish to become. This journey is thus about acknowledgement and acceptance rather than some shallow notion of choice where none exists. Zed must both accept his life is forever changed and forever beholden to where he came from.

The way that we invest in Zed’s search for clarity is through his stubborn selfishness. He considers his parents’ (Sudha Bhuchar plays his mother, Nasra) adherence to their ways as a slight against his. He considers his girlfriend’s (Aiysha Hart‘s Bina) decision to leave him once he chooses another tour over their fledgling relationship as her giving up on him. And he gazes upon the success of another young ethnically Pakistani rapper (Nabhaan Rizwan‘s RPG) with incredulity and embarrassment instead of a victory for those on fringes. Everything is thus about him. Zed is the center of existence and anyone who thinks otherwise is a traitor when all they want is a modicum of compromise so he can genuinely supply them the same love he demands for himself.

Zed’s flights into surreal dreamscapes while combatting the physical and emotional toll of his diagnosis become his reckoning. Everything he rejected as unnecessary “junk” rears its head to prove just how indelible it has all been to build the man he has become. He still fights it. He still fears it. The Pakistani man with strings of flowers in front of his face from the cover of a cassette and the memory of a tense adolescence is now following him as though in judgement. The harrowing story of his father’s dangerous escape from a divided India for England becomes resonant against the feelings of helplessness he’s experiencing in a hospital bed he isn’t strong enough to leave. And the bigotry he abhors is discovered living within him too.

Traditional remedies meet western medicine. Traditional familial values meet Millennial independence. And the idea that Zed’s legacy is tied to a very specific set of goals regardless of the creative and personal success it has outside of them is exposed as no legacy at all. Because who is it that he should wish was proud of him? Some famous rapper that wants him on his tour if he’s willing to front some money for the opportunity or the woman he loves? Fans who see him on the streets and want a selfie because he’s a commodity or the parents who would embrace the message he’s spitting if only he gave them the benefit of the doubt to explain his art’s power? Zed’s dreams have unwittingly sabotaged his reality.

And just like he’s going to have to learn to walk again if the experimental treatment his doctor recommends works, he’s going to have to learn to live again too. Break free of the ego and the materialism. Reach out a hand in empathy rather than snatching it away with pride. Bashir’s aspirations aren’t diminished in Zed’s eyes because they appear as a steady string of failures. They’re diminished because he’s afraid that rapping not working out would be a failure too as if stopping erases everything he accomplished. Look no further than RPG. The characterization is embellished to make him seem like a total tool, but that tool exists because Zed did first. Our mark isn’t ours alone if we inspire future generations to also make theirs.

So why not look at Bashir as the hero who survived, persevered, and gave Zed the chance to be who he wanted regardless of the backlash in his cultural and religious community? We are nothing without those who paved the way either by raising us up close or encouraging us from afar. There needs to be a balance. Just as Zed wishes his family would appreciate what he’s doing, he must also find the space to appreciate what it is they did. Maybe that’s recognizing the importance of his name, Zaheer, like his cousin chastises or maybe it’s recognizing the importance of letting it go. There’s a way to engage with the conversation that exists between heritage and assimilation productively. It doesn’t always have to lead to destruction.

Ahmed and Khan shine as the two ends of this spectrum desperate for common ground despite stubbornly wanting to drag the other to their side. The relation between what they’ve each gone through as human beings battling nations that reject them is a tough one to authentically portray on-screen while reconciling what it means to adapt for survival, but Ahmed and Tariq’s personal experiences let them bring their own pain and anger to life. It’s a topic devoid of answers and Mogul Mowgli does well not to pretend the opposite. All any of us can hope for is to find our footing and face the struggle with the necessary open eyes and hearts to realize it’s not a question of “me.” It’s actually a question of “us.”

courtesy of Strand Releasing

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