For a while now Riz Ahmed has been one of the most exciting British actors around but he’s rarely afforded the right platform to truly show off his talents. With Mogul Mowgli, which he stars, co-produces and co-writes in, Ahmed confirms his talents emphatically with a tour de force performance. Directed by Bassam Tariq, the narrative charts the journey of British-Pakistani rapper, Zed (Ahmed), who is struck down by a muscle-wasting autoimmune disease just when his career is starting to take off.
The film begins on Zed performing an impassioned rap on stage in front of an adoring crowd. Zed is just about to embark on a massive US tour that will propel him into the big time, so he decides to pay his London-based family a visit for the first time in two years before he takes off. But he isn’t received with the warmest of welcomes from his mum (Sudha Bhuchar) and dad (Alyy Khan) who don’t approve of his chosen vocation and lifestyle. All of a sudden Zed’s life comes crashing down around him when he’s struck by a totally debilitating illness and is hospitalised. As everything Zed has worked for comes under threat, with hated rival rapper RPG waiting in the wings to replace him on tour, he questions where his future is heading while grappling with his sense of identity.
Not only is Zed dealing with a potentially paralysing disease, he’s also fighting a deeply personal internal battle as his burgeoning rap career has disconnected him from his traditional family roots. What follows is an intimate, raw portrayal of the disorientation and clashing demands of existing between cultures. Tariq brilliantly transports us into Zed’s conflicted mind via an array of vivid hallucinatory sequences involving a masked figure and scored to Qawwali music. Through this surreal filmmaking, as well as a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, Zed’s suffocating struggles feel utterly palpable.
Mogul Mowgli works so well thanks to Ahmed’s remarkably lived-in and engaging central performance. Ahmed commands the screen from start to finish with a turn that showcases his astonishing range as he goes from confident rap star to vulnerable, bed-bound hospital patient. While Ahmed’s rapping is mightily impressive it’s his more emotionally fragile scenes that really hit hard. The supporting cast are also on top form, particularly Khan who shares two toilet-orientated father-son scenes with Ahmed which make for the film’s most poignant, heartfelt moments.
At just 90-minutes long, Mogul Mowgli never outstays its welcome, and may have actually benefited from a little lengthier running time, but its to the film’s credit that it leaves you wanting slightly more. Buoyed by a sensational career-best performance from Riz Ahmed, Mogul Mowgli delivers a unique, powerful study of culture, identity and family.