With cinemas closing left, right and centre due to COVID-19 restrictions, the release of British indie film Mogul Mowgli this year is all the more important. It is also fitting that one of the last stories to grace the big screen in 2020 is one that discusses uncertainty about what the future holds.
Starring Emmy-winning actor Riz Ahmed in the title role (he also wrote and produced the film), Mogul Mowgli is a poignant, low-budget indie film which follows a British Pakistani rapper who is forced to cancel his first world tour after he’s diagnosed with a degenerative disease. While the surface focus may be on his battle with the condition and the decline of his music career, the overarching themes sit much deeper, exploring dissociation with identity, religion and family.
The film opens with an explosive scene of Zed (Ahmed) performing on stage in New York, fervently spitting lyrics about race, class and religion. Despite a clear connection to his culture, we learn that Zed has not actually been home to London in a number of years, a subject he seems to be avoiding. Preparing to embark on his first large-scale tour, he eventually decides to return to the UK ahead of his first gig, only to be met with a distinct feeling of disconnection from his surroundings.
Back home, his family members chastise him for his westernisation and his lack of knowledge about their past sacrifices (his father fled India during Partition). Zed is distracted during prayers at the mosque and is quick to anger, winding up in an altercation that lands him in hospital. Though his injuries aren’t severe, tests indicate that Zed is in fact suffering from a much larger problem: a degenerative autoimmune disease that will put an end to his career as he knows it.
With doctors suggesting treatment akin to chemotherapy, Zed’s family push for him to seek out spiritual healing and alternative medicines, further polarising their views on the world. As treatment starts, his increasing reliance on his family for physical and emotional support causes rising tensions between himself and his father, who believes that Zed should avoid treatment in order to preserve his fertility. This conflict becomes the subject of a series of hallucinations and lucid dreams which float in and out throughout Mogul Mowgli's 85-minute run time.
The soundtrack includes some of Ahmed’s own songs as Riz MC and the music in the film is especially affecting, particularly the title track, "Toba Tek Singh", which is named after a short story by Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto which discusses the psychological and emotional effects left behind by Partition. With the lyrics written from the perspective of someone in a fractious personal relationship with Britain, the musical elements cleverly operate as a method of illuminating Zed's political thoughts and feelings throughout.
Largely concentrating on the bond between father and son, Mogul Mowgli may not explore many of its female characters but it provides a representation of the British South Asian family dynamic that feels both sensitive and challenging. The film is clearly a deeply personal project for both Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq, and stands as a universally powerful testament to familial relationships, childhood trauma and the struggles of dual identity.
Overall, Mogul Mowgli is a film for those with an interest in introspective emotional stories, as well as those who like surrealist, unique filming styles. It's a moving and thought-provoking watch with necessary insight into how intergenerational trauma affects people in Britain today. Though the film only gives a small look at a much larger subject matter, it's one that will stay with you long after watching.