Premise: A British Pakistani rapper is on the cusp of his first world tour, but is struck down by an illness that threatens to derail his big break.
It’s more common than you’d think that Hollywood releases two (or more) films in close proximity that closely resemble each other: Dante’s Peak and Volcano in 1997, The Illusionist and The Prestige in 2006, and Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached in 2011 are just a few examples of this dueling-film sensation. But it’s much less common when the two films share the same star and, at least on the surface, the fate has befallen Riz Ahmed for his newest film Mogul Mowgli. Ahmed of course starred in 2020’s Oscar-nominated Sound of Metal, where he memorably portrayed a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing, and Mogul Mowgli centers on a British rapper who suddenly loses his muscle functions.
As similar as the two films sound, it’s the finer touches that director Bassam Tariq puts on this film that distinguishes it as a unique experience. Tariq introduces Ahmed as Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper as he finishes his first North American tour. Most of his lyrics involve his upbringing, his lack of a firm ground to plant his feet. His success gains the attention of another famous rapper who requests Zed as an opener for his next tour beginning in London. We’re never explicitly detailed as far as Zed’s level of fame, but the film smartly drops hints; he seems to be famous enough to sell out a tour and have his songs on the radio, but Zed’s insecurity flairs up whenever another rapper named RPG threatens to take his spot on the tour.
The script, co-written by Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed (who also co-produced the film), is not only effective at wringing drama out of Zed’s predicament, but deserves praise for the way it avoids narrative tropes for this type of film. Once Zed returns home to London and stays with his strictly religious parents, we’re conditioned to expect them to disapprove of his lifestyle, hoping for a more stable future. Thank god that’s not the case here, as his mother Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) and father Bashir (Alyy Khan) accept him and nourish his ambitions. A funny aside finds Nasra actively searching out a radio station that will play Zed’s music.
Though Zed’s physical plight is the main thrust of the film, Tariq secretly makes the film about the inherited nature of physical and mental trauma. We see frequent flashbacks/dream sequences in a dusty train car, a reference to Bashir’s passage from India to Pakistan as a kid. Zed also begins frequently seeing a hallucination of a man whose face is covered in floral leis, though the purpose of these images is a little less evident. After Zed loses the ability to move freely, and eventually the ability to walk entirely, his doctor breaks the news that the auto-immune disease could be hereditary. Tariq develops these ideas nicely and organically; the goal of the film isn’t for one generation to accept the other. Rather, it’s simply to gain an understanding of what the other has lived through. The film also touches on the idea of belonging to a community, as Zed’s parents are devoutly Muslim – his mother burns peppers once he returns home to ward off evil spirits, and his father frequently attends prayer service at the mosque – and the legacies we leave behind. Zed not only wants to make a lasting impact as a musician, but specifically as a Middle Eastern rapper, a subset that’s underrepresented in popular culture.
It should come as no surprise that Ahmed is magnetic in the role as Zed. Whereas his performance in Sound of Metal – which earned him a Best Actor nomination – was much more internalized, and informed by his character’s life as a recovering addict, his performance here is much more physical but still no less impressive. Rappers are inherently proud, so to see a character go from bouncing around onstage to struggling to go to the bathroom without assistance makes for a poignant arc, and Ahmed easily conveys the sudden physical and mental struggles that Zed is dealing with. And if you somehow had any doubts about Ahmed’s musical talents after Sound of Metal, Mogul Mowgli shows he’s just as gifted as a lyricist.
As it seems to be commonplace with indie directors today, Bassam Tariq is moving on to bigger things, slated to direct Marvel’s remake of Blade starring Mahershala Ali. If Mogul Mowgli reveals anything surprising, it’s that Tariq can not only craft a grounded, personal fictional story – he primarily directed documentaries previously – but can direct A-list talent to give effective performances. Though Tariq’s film may dwell in the shadow of Sound of Metal amongst the public consciousness’, Mogul Mowgli capably stands on its own for the human instincts that it dwells on.
Mogul Mowgli premieres in select theaters September 3.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.