Review: Mogul Mowgli
by Kaleem Aftab
- BERLINALE 2020: Riz Ahmed puts in an exceptional performance in Bassam Tariq's cautionary musical tale dealing with double consciousness
The logline of Mogul Mowgli [+see also:
interview: Bassam Tariq
film profile] sounds all too familiar – a film about a young man having an identity crisis caused by being part of an ethnic minority living in the West. However, this second-generation tale has never been depicted on screen in such an exuberant, magical-realist and musical fashion. Director Bassam Tariq is best known for his acclaimed documentary These Birds Walk, about a runaway boy and humanitarian efforts in Pakistan, which debuted at South by Southwest in 2013. His debut feature-length narrative title, Mogul Mowgli, is likely to receive even more plaudits following its world premiere in the Panorama strand of the 70th Berlin Film Festival.
The title of the film comes from a Swet Shop Boys song that details what it's like being torn between different sides of your identity. In the song, as in the film, it's the protagonist's rich Eastern heritage that doesn't quite fit in with a life lived in the modern urban jungle in the West. Riz Ahmed, operating under the moniker Riz MC, is the most prominent member of Swet Shop Boys, and he brings both his musical and acting talent to the part of Zed, as well as wearing his scriptwriting and producing hat during the creation of the film.
Playing a gig in New York City, Zed is on the cusp of superstardom, booking himself as a support on a world tour. Yet, despite his success, he's unhappy, gnawed by the feeling that his musical ambition is being held back by the cultural confines of his British Asian family. But as his on/off girlfriend points out, Zed needs to look at himself for solutions, and not be so ready to blame others. Alas, Zed seems incapable of such maturity. Back in London, his father still tells him off for having a dirty room, and Zed's visits to the mosque seem far away from the stereotypical life of a musician.
Also, Zed has hallucinations of cultural ghosts from the past peppering his present. The images from his childhood and of his elders’ experiences during Partition haunt him. Using the illusions as a springboard, director Tariq embraces the abstract nature of our subconscious mind, and the film heads in a surreal direction that perfectly captures the inner turmoil and confusion that comes as part and parcel of double consciousness. The question is not so much “who am I?”, but “what am I?”
The stress and strains of this complicated existence lead to both mental and physical fatigue. Zed ends up in hospital, suffering from autoimmune disease while his world starts falling apart. His bitter musical rival, who makes terrible music videos, is signed up to replace the bedridden Zed on the world tour. Our hero struggles to see the wood for the trees. Somehow, despite everything going against him, Zed's musical dreams remain unabated, especially as he rummages through his father's Qawwali tapes. The glimmer of hope that things may change comes through his thawing relationship with his father, as he realises the benefit of having a supportive family.
Mogul Mowgli is an esoteric work, right up to its unexpected finale. It's a film that wears its difference with pride. The stylish directing marks Tariq out as a talent to watch. For his part, Ahmed, who also revels in playing a down-on-his-luck musician in Sound of Metal, is outstanding.
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