The last time festival audiences saw Riz Ahmed on screen, he was tearing it up on stage as a hedonistic hard-rocker before being plunged into emotional freefall by disability. As an American drummer slowly accepting the loss of his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” the British-Pakistani actor elucidated that painful arc with such furious, void-staring commitment that it’s a surprise to him completing it again in his very next film. In “Mogul Mowgli,” Ahmed plays a British-Pakistani rapper living in New York, felled on the eve of his big break by a severe illness that forces him to move back to London and take stock: The details have shifted a little closer to home, as you’d expect from a passion project co-written and produced by the star himself. If anything, Ahmed tears into it with even more wild-eyed magnetism.
Outside of Ahmed’s seething, spitting, can’t-look-away performance, “Mogul Mowgli” is a sparsely scripted but scratchily atmospheric culture-clash drama that runs on some quite traditional father-son melodramatics. But considering the film outside the performance would be a mistake. Ahmed’s turn is the substance and subtext here, drawing on his thespian and musical gifts, as well his personal history, to offer an impassioned reflection on the liminal place occupied by many immigrant artists in western culture: In the case of Ahmed’s ambitious MC Zed, he winds up othered by his own family. A lively addition to Berlin’s Panorama program, it’s the fruit of a palpably close collaboration with American-Pakistani docmaker Bassam Tariq, who brings restive visual and sonic verve to his first narrative feature; indie distributors should roll up.
Credit Ahmed the screenwriter with a certain lack of vanity: Prickly and self-regarding, Zed isn’t an easy character to warm to for much of the film. Yet as the film fills in the roots of his hunger to escape the life he was born into, his hardness becomes more sympathetic, if no less intractable. We meet Zed in concert in New York, bristling from all pores as he tosses out rhymes with casual but vicious abandon: For those unfamiliar with Ahmed’s busy side hustle as a freestyle rapper and one half of the transatlantic hip-hop duo Swet Shop Boys, this is a persuasive showcase from the off. (The film’s title, signifying a battle for the soul between Western capitalism and Eastern tradition, is lifted from a Swet Shop Boys track.)
Zed — short for Zaheer, and a nickname that irks his relatives — is preparing for the biggest tour of his life, the one that looks set to launch him into the big leagues, even if his fractious relationship with girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) looks to be an imminent casualty of his success. Yet he’s heading for a fall, literal and otherwise, when he heads to London to check in with his semi-estranged family before touring: A back-alley scuffle with a professed fan triggers a potentially life-threatening autoimmune disease, treatable only by an experimental procedure. His rigorously conservative father (Alyy Khan), as mistrustful of Western medicine as he is of Western music, urges him not to go through it, aggravating an already yawning gap between the family’s cultural and spiritual values and those of their ailing, angry prodigal son. With each day in hospital, moreover, Zed’s tour spot, and all the dreams contained therein, slip further away.
It’s the kind of cruelly timed plot turn you’d find in the oldest and dustiest of backstage dramas, particularly when Zed’s younger, cruder but equally hungry protégé RPG (rising star Nabhaan Rizwan, recently seen in “1917”) looks to benefit from his misfortune. “Mogul Mowgli” isn’t afraid to serve a little corn amid its grit, yet just as it seem headed into formula, Tariq steers proceedings into stranger, headier realms of Zed’s subconscious. His waking anguish is disrupted by tortured fever dreams that mesh his hybrid world with traditional Pakistani imagery and mythology: the influences he has selectively incorporated into his work, now haunting him with almost spiteful relentlessness.
As it hurtles toward an untidy reckoning, “Mogul Mowgli” dips perhaps too often into this well of glitchy, grainy surrealism, though the execution is consistently impressive. The harsh, oily tones of Annika Summerson’s claustrophobic lensing and the layered, head-buzzing cacophony of Paul Davies’ superb sound design are invaluable allies to Tariq’s direction, which rarely defers to the pared-back naturalism one might expect of a docmaker turning to fiction. This is gutsy, spiky, imperfect independent filmmaking that finds the formal gusto to complement and buoy its star’s aggressive dynamism: Ahmed affirms his standing as one of Britain’s most vital, risky actors, even in a role we thought we’d already seen him play.