Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli is perhaps the clearest and best tackling of someone’s inner conflict over trying to figure out how to remain in touch with their roots, past and culture whilst figuring out who they are and who they’re meant to be there’s ever been.
We’ve all had that inner conflict and self-doubt about our identity to some extent, but Mogul Mowgli amplifies that to almost horrific levels with the story of promising up and coming rapper Zed (Riz Ahmed) who finds himself torn between advancing his career in his chosen profession, chasing fame and the spotlight and just one tour away from making it big, and the fact that this path has disconnected him from the struggles of his family and their traditional culture and roots.
It’s nothing short of genius, then, that this struggle, is realised on screen with the perfect metaphor of Zed’s own body slowly betraying him under the strain of an auto-immune disease that is attacking his own cells because it doesn’t recognise them. His body doesn’t recognise itself. This very pressing, very real physical illness is the perfect way to visibly manifest Zed’s mental state being caught between two cultures in a way that is immediately understandable.
Mogul Mowgli isn’t strictly a horror film, but the psychological element of the disease as well as some excellent filmmaking and narrative choices from Tariq, who also co-wrote the film with Ahmed, do give the film a horror edge. Zed finds himself haunted by reoccurring visions of a veiled man in hallucinatory sequences and there are several other surreal moments throughout the film outside of that. Even the tight off-centre framing, irregular focus and aspect ratio of the presentation adds to the idea of Zed being trapped, and weighed down.
Zed must then make a very literal choice. He can continue pursuing his future and do what he can to make the tour, abandon his past and possibly remain bedridden for the rest of his life, or worse. Or, he can give up on the future he wanted, let his younger generational rival do the big tour, give up on potentially having children in order to recover and potentially reconnect with his past. Again, the internal culture clash is made external in very real, very harrowing ways.
There are moments of levity, mainly presented through the crass, obtusely unself-aware, borderline parody of a modern day rap artist and Zed’s main, infuriating rival RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan) whose song ‘Pussy Fried Chicken’ is as absurd as it is accurate. However even his presence in the film throws up a lot of anxiety for Zed.
Of course, none of this would work quite as well as it does without the steady hand and supreme talent of the film’s lead and Ahmed simply excels in a film that really does ask a lot from him. Not only does he nail the physical aspects like performing rap music and embodying someone who’s body is failing him, but he so brilliantly also perfectly portrays the mental toll this ordeal is taking on him and the nuance of someone being pulled in different directions.
As a result there are several moments during the film that are simply heart-breaking to watch, like Zed’s two brief yet deeply poignant interactions with his father (Alyy Khan) which do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting of the film and also Zed’s desperate, lonely phone call to his ex-girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) to try to offer her his sperm. Ahmed might be the start but the supporting cast, including these two names all pull in strong performances.
Mogul Mowgli really is a dissection of someone drifting away from their culture and feeling immense guilt and conflict as a result and it’s deeply upsetting throughout as Zed ultimately finds himself sacrificing so much. That’s why it’s so cathartic that it thankfully ends on a delightfully touching and intimate moment of positivity. There may be a generation of young people inadvertently turning their back on where they came from, but Mogul Mowgli posits that there might still be hope!
Please check out our reviews for the rest of the horror films that screened at London Film Festival this year here