London Film Festival 2020: MOGUL MOWGLI

Riz Ahmed rarely plays it safe. From turns in Chris MorrisFour Lions, to Mira Nair‘s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, to HBO’s stunning series, The Night Of, the young Pakistani-Brit is used to taking on heavy roles and making them his own. Here, he makes what he says is his most personal movie yet. And it shows.

Legacies Outlive Love

Ahmed stars as Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper who is currently preparing for a big US tour which is the break he’s been waiting for his entire career. ‘Legacies outlive love’ he raps in the opening scenes, which are a stunning work of cinematography by Annika Summerson, a study in contrast from the quiet reflections of Zed to his bombastic stage presence in front of a raucous crowd. His statement about love and legacy is a very telling one, considering Zed hasn’t seen his family in two years. On top of that, his relationship with his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) is disintegrating because Zed is far more focused on his career. It’s clear that Zed is a hard-worker, and has sacrificed everything for this opportunity. He and Bina break up near the beginning of the movie, and she tells Zed he should go home and see his family before his big tour starts.

London Film Festival 2020: MOGUL MOWGLI
source: BFI Distribution

It’s back in London where most of the action takes place. Ahmed clearly values family and heritage, coupled with his interest in the tenuous relationship Britain has with Pakistani immigrants. Nowhere is this more clear than in his short film The Long Goodbye, which feels in some ways a precursor to Mogul Mowgli. Zed’s family, a close-knit one who values time with each other, welcomes him but there is a general air of disapproval for his behaviour. One, for staying away so long – as his mum reproaches him when he arrives, scolding him for losing weight as she does – and two, for the career he has chosen, which is largely unspoken but always present, especially in the scenes between Zed and his father, Bashir (Alyy Khan). Zed, it is implied, would have been better choosing a career like his father. Bashir is ostensibly a merchant, selling items such as cassettes which he believes have an under-appreciated value. Zed sneers at this lifestyle and it’s clear what he thinks of his father’s decisions.

Everything comes to a head when Zed is attacked by a fan whom he refused to give a selfie. This lands him in hospital, where he discovers he has a degenerative auto-immune disease, which is destroying his muscles. Faced with losing out on his big opportunity to tour the US, a tour which might go to his hated rival RPG (played by Nabhaan Rizwan), and the very real possibility he may never walk again, Zed tumbles into despair. It is left to his family to help him pick up the pieces of his life and put them back together again.

Riz Ahmed is The Standout

Unsurprisingly, Riz Ahmed is the standout performer here. He is nothing short of electric, firstly in the scenes where Zed is on stage (Ahmed himself is a rapper for hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys, where he is credited as Riz MC) but also, perhaps more effectively, in the quiet moments where Zed has to come to terms with his illness alone in the hospital. Ahmed runs the gamut of emotions: bitter, angry, desperate, afraid. There is a moment where he calls his ex-girlfriend (whom he hasn’t revealed his illness to) in order to instigate phone sex. When she realises what’s going on, Bina is furious that Zed would be so selfish. This leaves Zed with the painful realisation that he has hurt people in his quest to become famous and all those decisions he made have been brought to bare. He breaks down on the phone to Bina and it’s a powerful moment, which Ahmed squeezes every last drop from.

London Film Festival 2020: MOGUL MOWGLI
source: BFI Distribution

Elsewhere, the supporting cast have little influence but do what they can with what they’re given. As mentioned, Alyy Khan is probably the best of these. Bashir is an unfailingly conservative father who wants the best for his son, and can do nothing but stand by helplessly while his son struggles to cope with his illness. He suggests a procedure called Cupping, where little cuts are made to the back and blood sucked out through a suction cup, and is appalled by the western medicine his son elects to take which could render him infertile – highlighting the massive gap between Bashir’s cultural values and his son’s lack thereof.

Then there are the hallucinations. Zed begins to see a masked figure everywhere he goes who relates the folklore tale of Toba Tek Singh; a Pakistani town developed by the British at the end of the 19th century, which was involved in the Indian partition in the late 1940s. Here, again, is a connection to The Long Goodbye, on whose accompanying album is a song called Toba Tek Singh. The inference of Ahmed‘s own life and passions are very clear, even bleeding over into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it home videos of him playing as a child. The fever dreams Zed has, feel a touch over-indulgent at times; the strange abstractions seem a little jarring when compared to the fairly restrained hospital scenes and although they aren’t prominent enough to derail the movie, there’s an argument that they aren’t entirely warranted to get across Zed’s battles with his ancestral history – something we already know through his raps are always prominent in his mind.

London Film Festival 2020: MOGUL MOWGLI
source: BFI Distribution

Director Bassam Tariq applies a very light touch to Mogul Mowgli. Scenes are left to simmer and percolate; some have an almost documentary feel to them, as though we are watching not a scripted performance but simply a slice of life in the household of an average family. All of this helps the viewer get invested in the movie. Although Zed is not a likable figure – self-centered and narcissistic as he is – his plight is raw and the dialogue (which appears to be mostly unscripted) is realistic enough that he is all too recognisable, even while unlikeable. Typically, though, Ahmed is so good that like him or not, you’ll struggle not to be drawn into Zed.


Mogul Mowgli has the feel of a spirited, gutsy passion project and benefits from Riz Ahmed‘s incredible performance. He is always compelling and imbues Zed with the full range of human emotions, ensuring a touching denouement for the character. Elsewhere, Tariq has assembled a great cast of actors, even if most of them are underused.  There were moments you wish were explored more – such as Zed’s imaginary rap battle about cultural appropriation in the hip-hop culture between Black and Asian minorities – and certainly some patchy editing now and again. But the sometimes-undercooked feeling of the film strangely compliments the rawness of the storytelling, and never obstructs Mogul Mowgli long enough to really matter.

Riz Ahmed has made a passion project centered on his own experiences growing up in London. Can you think of any similar films you’ve enjoyed? Let us know in the comments!

Mogul Mowgli will be released in the UK on October 30th.  For more information about release dates, please click here.


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