‘Mogul Mowgli’: Film Review

Playing — once more — a hard-living musician brought down by his own body, Riz Ahmed electrifies Bassam Tariq's British culture-clash drama.

Bassam Tariq
Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Aiysha Hart, Nabhaan Rizwan

Running time: 89 MIN.

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, an Americanization 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.

Popular on Variety

'Mogul Mowgli': Film Review

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, Feb. 12, 2020. (In Berlin Film Festival.) Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A BBC Films presentation of a Pulse Films, Left Handed Films production in association with Silvertown Films. (Int'l sales: Charades, Paris.) Producers: Thomas Benksi, Bennett McGhee, Riz Ahmed, Michael Peay. Executive producers: Eva Yates, Dimitra Tsingou, Yann Demange, Philipp Engelhorn, Leah Giblin, Elliott Whitton, Suroosh Alvi, Danny Gabai. Co-executive producers: Patty Quillin, Nion McEvoy, Leslie Berriman. Co-producer: Joanne Dixon.

Crew: Director: Bassam Tariq. Screenplay: Tariq, Riz Ahmed. Camera: Annika Summerson. Editor: Adam Biskupsie, Hazel Baillie. Music: Paul Corley.

With: Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Aiysha Hart, Nabhaan Rizwan, Anjana Vasan, Hussain Manawer, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Jeff Mirza. (English, Urdu dialogue)

More Film

  • Rita And Tom Hanks Coronavirus

    Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson Return to U.S. After Coronavirus Diagnosis in Australia

    Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are back home in the U.S. after they revealed they had contracted coronavirus and were quarantined in Australia. Hanks gave an update on Twitter Saturday morning, thanking everyone who had helped them in Australia and assuring people that they are still isolating themselves in the U.S. “Hey, folks…We’re home now [...]

  • Film Comment Magazine Goes on Hiatus

    Film Comment Magazine to Go on Hiatus as Film at Lincoln Center Lays Off Half of Staff

    Many companies are being financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Film at Lincoln Center is the latest organization to have to lay off employees and pause some of their operations. On Friday, executive director Lesli Klainberg released a memo announcing that the center had to furlough or lay off about half of its [...]

  • "Birds of Prey" egg sandwich

    'Birds of Prey' Actor Bruno Oliver Recreates Harley Quinn's Famous Sandwich

    When actor Bruno Oliver booked the role of short order cook Sal in “Birds of Prey: (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” he had no idea how significant Sal and his breakfast sandwich were to the story. “You couldn’t tell from the audition necessarily and as actors, we always worry about our scenes [...]

  • Minyan

    'Minyan': Film Review

    Best known for the unexpectedly soul-shattering San Francisco suicide doc “The Bridge,” indie filmmaker Eric Steel came out and came of age in 1980s New York at a moment just before AIDS devastated the city’s gay community. Such timing must have been surreal, to assume something so liberating about one’s own identity, only to watch [...]

  • Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches

    Film New Roundup: Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches North American Distribution

    In today’s film news roundup, “The Queen’s Corgi” finds a home, the Overlook Film Festival is postponed and the California Film Commission adjusts its tax credit rules due to the coronavirus. ACQUISITION Freestyle Digital Media has acquired North American rights to the animated family comedy feature “The Queen’s Corgi,” and plans to make it available on DVD and to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content