The political is deeply personal in Mogul Mowgli, an uneasy jolt of (pop) culture clash and assimilation angst that is equal parts unsettling and electrifying: it is near-nightmarish, verging on stream-of-consciousness, and absolutely mesmerizing.
Just as he is on the edge of real fame and financial success, Pakistani-British rapper Zed (Riz Ahmed: Venom) must quit touring and remain home in London for treatment for an urgent and terrifying medical problem. A renewed confrontation with the expectations of his immigrant parents and conventional family life erupts while hospitalized Zed contends with a rival rapper, RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), trying to steal his thunder from the sidelined Zed. Existential anxiety and soul-deep identity crisis manifests in haunting visions and unnerving hallucinations of traditional Pakistani art and music. In the stew, too, is Zed’s tormented rap, the howling of a young man caught between multiple worlds, too Western for his parents but not Black enough for South London, either. The kick-in-the-teeth reminder of his own mortality is the final straw, and the fragile self-image Zed has constructed for himself comes crashing down around him.
Ahmed — who wrote the script with director Bassam Tariq (11/8/16), making his narrative feature debut — has called this his most personal work yet, and his performance is thrilling: he oozes sweat and rage, pride and power. The dreamscape of Annika Summerson’s cinematography, oversaturated and drenched in surreality, boxes Zed in with its unexpectedly square aspect ratio. It makes for an experience that is sometimes cozy and intimate, like the snippets of home movies we glimpse of Zed’s childhood, and then turns claustrophobic, as if it is yet another curb on him. Zed’s fury — to be everything he can be, without constraint — is clearly Ahmed’s, too.
viewed during the mostly virtual 64th BFI London Film Festival, in pandemic year 2020