Mogul Mowgli

 

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A brave attempt by Riz Ahmed at something very different and distinctive.

 
Mogul Mowgli

Riz Ahmed

 

I have long had the greatest respect for the actor Riz Ahmed who is the leading actor in this first narrative film by Bassam Tariq. Consequently, it pains me to have to give an unfavourable review to Mogul Mowgli and all the more so because for both men it is a film that comes from the heart (indeed they share the writing credit here). Ahmed may be based in Britain and Tariq in America but both are of Pakistani descent and this piece features characters who share the experience of their creators by sharing that ancestry yet making a life in a Western country while remaining deeply aware of their distant roots.

 

The central figure in Mogul Mowgli played by Riz Ahmed is Zaheer Anwar and, like Ahmed himself, he is a rapper. Even the fact that this man has for his work abandoned the name of Zaheer to become Zed is indicative of a life spent making adjustments in order to fit in, so what we have here is undoubtedly a film about people who to some extent feel outsiders in their adopted country despite having taken on its lifestyle. Their situation is one that involves coming to terms with history (in this particular instance there are many references to the 1947 Partition that divided Pakistan and India), facing the potential clash between conflicting cultures and beliefs and confronting the fact that attitudes change over generations (Zed's father, Bashir played by Alyy Khan, is often at odds with him). All these elements possess a rich potential for drama.

 

As one would expect, these issues do come up in this film but the plot involves Zed in being unexpectedly diagnosed with a severe autoimmune condition affecting his muscles and his ability to walk. A planned major tour cannot now proceed, but worst of all is the realisation that the proposed treatment will leave him infertile. Dramatic this may be, but it is largely unconnected with those matters that had seemed to be central to the film's aim and it prevents them from being sufficiently of the essence. There's a failure of another kind too when, as an alternative approach, an uncle of Zed's attempts to cure him by cupping and the scene showing this is set in a hospital where most improbably no staff are on hand to detect what is going on.

 

As for the direction, there's an early scene of a straightforward nature (it involves Zed breaking up with his girlfriend) which is shot in a mannered way sufficiently inept to make me have doubts about Tariq’s judgment. Indeed, as the film proceeds one senses that smooth, clear storytelling does not come naturally to him but, as with the uneasy placing of flashbacks to indicate Bashir's experiences in 1947, it may be the writing that is at fault. Certainly my own confusion increased when, either in dreams or as hallucinations, figures turned up unexplained. One of these who appears to Zed is described by him as a fat man with flowers: "Why do I see him, dad?" asks Zed, and it is a question that I was asking too. However, Bashir's only response to his son is to say that it is all nonsense. The cast list does indicate that this character is one Tula Tek Singh which I subsequently discovered is the name of a place in Pakistan and it becomes a song by Zed featured at the close of the film. The significance of all this passed me by, but it is only fair to say that Mogul Mowgli has impressed others and indeed it carried off the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at Berlin this year so it may be that it was my fault that it did not communicate more clearly to me. Predictably Ahmed acts well and he is matched by Khan, but the film was for me hugely disappointing. I wanted to feel involved but found it instead a confusing, distancing experience. Hopefully others will respond differently and side with those who admire it.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Nabhaan Rizwan, Anjana Vasan, Alysha Hart, Hussain Manawer, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Jeff Mirza.

 

Dir Bassam Tariq, Pro Thomas Benski, Bennett McGhee, Riz Ahmed and Michael Peay, Screenplay Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed, Ph Annika Summerson, Pro Des Francesca Massariol, Ed Adam Biskupski and Hazel Baillie, Music Paul Corley, Costumes Grace Snell.

 

BBC Films/Cinereach/SFFilm Invest/Vice Studios/Riot Film/Pulse Films/Left Handed Films-BFI Distribution.
90 mins. UK/USA. 2020. Rel: 30 October 2020. Available on BFI Player. Cert. 15.