‘Mogul Mowgli’ Review: Rapping for Dear Life

We first meet Zaheen, whose rap moniker is Zed, onstage at a club in New York. Wiry and wired, with a whispery intensity and a quick sense of humor — and played by Riz Ahmed with everything he has — Zed is on the verge of a career breakthrough after years of almost-stardom. He’s also about to break up with his girlfriend, Bina (Aiysha Hart), and face an illness that will precipitate a wrenching identity crisis.

But before all that, if you listen to the verses he spits, it’s clear that the puzzles and paradoxes of identity are the wellsprings of his art. A London-bred son of immigrants from Pakistan, he writes seething, witty rhymes about the complicated history of the skin he lives in. He’s a British citizen descended from colonial subjects; a Muslim who is skeptical of piety and tradition; a man of the 21st century burdened by an earlier era’s legacy of partition, displacement and war.

Nothing about Zed is simple, and he revels in his own complexity. “Mogul Mowgli,” Bassam Tariq’s astute, compact fictional feature debut, is a portrait of the artist as a son, brother and patient. Not that he’s summed up by such roles, or any others. “Only a few fit those words, so I’m repping for the rest of us,” he raps.

Ahmed, who wrote those lyrics (and collaborated with Tariq on the screenplay) reps the character faithfully. Zed’s illness makes “Mogul Mowgli” a companion of sorts to “Sound of Metal,” in which Ahmed played a drummer facing the existential crisis of hearing loss. An autoimmune disease, arriving midway through this movie, quickly renders Zed unable to walk or stand without assistance. Stuck in a hospital bed, he is thrown back into a difficult relationship with his father (the superb Alyy Khan) and into a series of reveries.

These unnerving episodes — existing somewhere between dream and memory, fantasy and hallucination — evoke moments from Zed’s childhood and also some of the traumas of South Asian history. One recurrent figure is a wildly dancing man, his face obscured by garlands of flowers. He is identified as Toba Tek Singh, a Punjabi place name that is also the title of a short story (by Saadat Hasan Manto) about the absurdity and tragedy of the 1947 partition of British India into India and Pakistan. Rather than explain the reference, Tariq and Ahmed let Toba Tek Singh stand as a kind of avatar and warning for Zed, who does what he can to master the madness of his circumstances.

The film moves briskly though the phases of his predicament. He squabbles with his manager (Anjana Vasan), deals with an obnoxious fan, and endures the admiration of a younger rap acolyte known as RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), a fool with facial tattoos and wisdom that would make Ali G proud. (“There’s no Drake without Whoopi Goldberg. No Nelson Mandela without apartheid.”)

With the director of photography (Annika Summerson) and the sound designer (Paul Davies), Tariq stitches domestic drama, satire and magical realism into a tissue of moods and meanings, held together by the shattering credibility of Ahmed’s performance. In his work, Zed tries to bring coherence to the baffling anarchy of experience. “Mogul Mowgli” accomplishes just that.

Mogul Mowgli
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.

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