Mogul Mowgli (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A Pakistani British rapper in double crisis

“Mogul Mowgli” is a curious piece of work which alternatively baffled and intrigued me. While this is essentially a familiar tale of personal/artistic crisis, it dynamically swings around many different elements including professional integrity and cultural identity, and the result is not entirely satisfying in my humble opinion, but it is still anchored on the ground fairly well thanks to another strong performance from one of the best movie performers in our time.

Riz Ahmed, who has been more prominent thanks to his recent Oscar-nominated turn in “Sound of Metal” (2019), plays a Pakistani British rapper named Zed, and the opening part of the film shows his latest public performance in front of many audiences. Although he starts his rap song rather quietly, it does not take much time for him to galvanize his audiences, and we later see him enthusiastically promoting himself more via social media.

Nevertheless, Zed has not been that famous or successful for more than 10 years, and that has certainly frustrated him at lot, but then there comes a big opportunity thanks to Vaseem (Anjana Vasan), who is a close friend of his besides having worked as his manager for a long time. He is requested to do the opening for the upcoming European tour of some popular rapper, and it looks like he is finally going to get a big break he has yearned for many years.

However, his personal life is not that fine in contrast. After having a rather petty argument with them, Zed and his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) come to see that there is not much affection left between them, and that inevitably leads to their eventual breakup. As they sleep together for the last time, Zed comes to do an impromptu rap performance for himself, and we observe how much he is determined to reach for success while sacrificing many other things in his life including love.

Because his girlfriend reminded him of how much he has been estranged from his parents during last several years, Zed decides to drop by his parents’ residence in London, and the mood between him and his parents is awkward to say the least. While certainly proud of how her son has been doing fairly well outside these days, his mother Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) does not ask much about his career, and she is rather hesitant about using a new dishwasher bought by him just because she is still fine with her old kitchen equipments. In case of his father Bashir (Alyy Khan), he does not approve much of his son’s rapper career, but he does not say anything bad mainly because he is not a very admirable patriarch for failing in a series of small businesses in the past.

During the following Ramadan dinner among Zed and his family members, the movie delves a bit into Zed’s mixed viewpoint on his ethnic/cultural background when he and one of his family members happen to argue with each other about that. While he has not hidden his racial identity at all throughout his career, he still prefers to use his English stage name instead of his real name, and his ambiguous position on his ethnic/cultural background is further amplified when he and his father are later praying along with many other Muslims at a local mosque. Not long after that, he comes across a Muslim lad on an alley, and their following conversation becomes rather amusing when it turns out that this lad mistook Zed for a certain other Pakistani British rapper who has incidentally been despised by Zed for good reasons.

When he is subsequently taken to a local hospital for suddenly becoming ill for no apparent reason, Zed is not particularly concerned at first as believing that he will recover within a few days before that European tour, but then there comes a very bad news. It turns out that he has been suffering from a degenerative muscular autoimmune disease, and, to his shock and devastation, his doctor tells him that this will only get worse and worse day by day.

As Zed tries to cope with his worsening physical condition, his mind dives into the realm of unconsciousness at times, and the movie freely moves back and forth between reality and dream. We often see the fragments of his past memories including the one involved with his father’s disastrous restaurant business, and we are also served with a series of recurring images involved with a certain painfully important historical fact in his parents’ past. While his mind and body become more confused and exhausted due to the following experimental medical therapy which may cure him in the end, Zed frequently confronts a mysterious man wearing a sehra (It is a traditional flower headdress worn by Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi men at their weddings, by the way), and we come to sense more of whatever he has been looking away from for many years as focusing more on his career success.

Although the movie does not clarify or explain to us much of these and many other things in the story, Ahmed’s harrowing performance keeps us engaged from the beginning to the end. Yes, he already played another musician character struggling with a sudden serious medical circumstance in “Sound of Metal”, but Ahmed, who also wrote the screenplay with director Bassam Tariq besides co-producing the film, is an actor too intelligent to recycle his previous work, and his electrifying acting keeps holding everything together even when the movie seems to stray a bit too much from time to time. In addition, he is also supported well by several other main cast members in the film including Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Nabhaan Rizwan, Aiysha Hart, and Anjana Vasan, and Khan is particularly touching when his character comes to bond more with Zed around the end of the film.

Overall, “Mogul Mowgli” will certainly require you to have some background knowledge first on many cultural/historical things ranging from the Partition of India in 1947 to Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1955 short story “Toba Tek Singh”, but its raw emotional moments will linger on your mind for a while thanks to Tariq’s competent direction and Ahmed’s good performance. I still do not think I understand everything in the film, but it intrigued me enough to do some online research on its cultural background, and that says a lot about how it worked for me on the whole.

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