Skip to main content
film review

Riz Ahmed stars in Mogul Mowgli as Zed, a British-Pakistani rap artist trying to make it on the mainstage, while staying true to his histories.Handout

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.

  • Mogul Mowgli
  • Directed by Bassam Tariq
  • Written by Bassam Tariq, Riz Ahmed
  • Starring Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Anjana Vasan, Aiysha Hart, Jeff Mirza
  • Classification 14A (coarse language)
  • Length 89 minutes
  • Available in theatres across Canada on Friday, Sept. 3

Growing up as a diasporic kid can feel like being in a state of cognitive dissonance. Of being in limbo, caught between your present and your parents’ past, carrying everyone’s histories and baggage within you. Life can be a constant trip, both a physical and mental one.

It makes perfect sense, then, that Mogul Mowgli is a bit of a bender. Its hallucinatory visuals articulate not just the mental breakdown of its central character, Zed (Riz Ahmed), but also mirror his fractured identity as a British-Pakistani rap artist trying to make it on the mainstage, while staying true to his histories.

The film opens with a recurring motif of an image. A moonlit journey, a train compartment that appears frozen in still life with the suggestion of human presence, bleached slants of light filled with floating white tufts. It’s a deeply poetic image. Seamlessly the scene transitions to Zed emerging from curtains onto a stage, at first crouched in the soft shadows. He hisses, “I spit my truth and it’s brown,” before suddenly bursting into the limelight, spitting rhymes in a frenzy as the audience roars in approval.

This concert, which takes place in New York, ends on a high note. Zed is buzzed with his fans’ adoration, live-streaming with them – as they do these days. His manager, Vaseem (Anjana Vasan), tells him he’s managed to score a gig as the opening act for a famous musician about to go on tour. But, his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) reminds him, for someone who constantly sings about his roots – Zed hasn’t been back home for a long time.

The film smartly plays to the strengths of Ahmed, a thoughtful actor and erstwhile rapper Riz MC of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys.Handout

Zed is running away from something. It isn’t immediately clear what. A visit back home in England is familiar, and often disconcertingly so. It’s where he’s reminded that his name is not Zed, but Zaheer – Zuzu to his mom. Where he speaks to his family in a mix of Urdu and English, inwardly exasperated with the ways in which nothing has changed. Where he comes across an old mixtape that he’d made on a cassette and plays it with glee, still remembering his old rhymes, until realization hits that he recorded his verses over a qawwali (Muslim devotional music often associated with the Sufi tradition) album. The cover image of the album becomes another recurring nightmarish vision.

During this visit home, Zed’s body suddenly collapses. It turns out that he’s suffering from an autoimmune disease. He is literally stuck. He needs to rely on his parents, who have differing views on his treatment. His father Bashir (Alyy Khan) seeks out traditional remedies, while his mother Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) wants to follow the doctor’s advice. While figuring out his treatment plan, Zed also has to renegotiate his relationship with his father, and consider his future as a performer.

In the middle of all this, there are references to Toba Tek Singh, a famous short story by Saadat Hasan Manto, a literary icon who documented the ravages of the Partition of India and Pakistan in pithy and harrowing detail. Using Toba Tek Singh as a recurring narrative device is sublime, for those who understand the reference and the burden it carries.

While dealing with an autoimmune disease, Ahmed's Zed also has to renegotiate his relationship with his father and consider his future as a performer.Handout

Mogul Mowgli came about after years of FaceTime conversations, WhatsApp voice notes and whatever fortuitous in-person meetings that Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq could manage as they navigated their own meandering career paths. Their conversations revolved around their identities as creative people, but also the histories they carried within them as diasporic artists. They wanted to tell a story about accepting their whole selves. The film is clearly a passion project into which they have poured their souls.

It smartly plays to the strengths of Ahmed, who is a thoughtful actor and erstwhile rapper Riz MC of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys, and immerses himself into the vulnerabilities of the role. Ahmed also co-wrote the songs performed by Zed in the movie. It’s a treat to see veteran actors such as Khan and theatre artist Bhuchar playing pivotal parts, and discovering younger ones like Vasan. Khan especially conveys a nuanced performance as the stern but loving patriarch, who is dismissive of his own personal trauma, and is at times at odds with his son’s stage persona – but still tries to connect in his own way.

While watching Mogul Mowgli, I was reminded of a rich tradition of diasporic South Asian films that experimented with form and conventions – My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Bhaji on the Beach (1994) or even Canadian filmmaker Srinivas Krishna’s Masala (1991).

Those of us who have grown up attending events such as mehfils – or musical evenings – featuring qawwali and bhangra concerts, replete with extra reverb adlibs or home videos recorded on analog VHS tapes, will appreciate the familiarity of the myriad worlds that Mogul Mowgli traverses. For others, it’s a window into the particular struggles of an artist trying to find his own voice and his identity.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)