Riz Ahmed brings his intense and always engaging presence to this film as star, co-producer and co-writer with its director, Bassam Tariq. It is a deeply personal drama about culture, family, community and what it means to represent – though it can also be self-indulgent and even a bit self-involved, though this is arguably a function of the story.
Ahmed plays a British-Pakistani rapper, Zed, who has become a huge hit in New York, is preparing for a US tour and is clearly on the verge of the big time (Ahmed’s own rapping is also impressive). Zed’s girlfriend suggests he uses the time before the tour stars to reconnect with his family in Wembley, London, whom he hasn’t seen in two years, especially his hardworking mum and dad (strong performances from Sudha Bhuchar and Alyy Khan).
But things are tense when he returns, with unspoken reproaches from his parents about being away, and there are murmurings from his home town friends about Zed being a sellout and a “coconut”. And then through a nauseous twist of fate – some terrible, inexplicable judgment from the heavens – Zed is admitted to hospital with a muscle-wasting autoimmune disease that means he may have to abandon his place on the tour and give it to hated rival rapper Majid (Nabhaan Rizwan) – even letting him perform some of his material.
As he undergoes painful treatment, Zed starts to hallucinate about his personal history and his place in Britain and Pakistan’s history: a strange masked figure relates the mythic tale of Toba Tek Singh, the area ripped apart by the 1947 partition. Zed’s ordeal is made even more anguished by the Faustian bargain presented by the hospital doctors: the only therapy possible involves the risk of infertility.
On one level, Mogul Mowgli could be read as a black-comic fable about the overwhelming importance of never going home and never getting bogged down in that boring place you’ve worked so hard to get away from. That background is fine to write powerful lyrics about and generally bolster your star status in the US. But the moment you go back there, the muscle-wasting disease will kick in.
Of course, it is nothing so cynical. Zed feels deeply about the place he came from – a complicated nexus of determinant backgrounds. And he feels strongly about his work as an artist, although here, too, there is a question of appropriating other cultures’ art forms. There is an imaginary rap battle with a British-African performer. It is performed with forthright sincerity and it tackles the complexities of 21st-century British selfhood head on.
Source: The Guardian