A New York-based, British-Pakistani rapper, Zed (Riz Ahmed), is about to embark in his first world tour after years of struggle from scratch. Just before the supposedly career-defining opportunity, he decides to fly home to his family in London after being away for at least two years. What arrives to him, however, isn’t what he’s expected; instead, he shows symptoms of an autoimmune disease attacking his muscle. “Your body doesn’t recognize itself, so it attacks itself,” the doctor diagnoses—while, at the same time, alluding the inner conflict the protagonist bears: the lost sense of identity.
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If life is a joke, the autoimmune disease that takes the central stage of Zed’s life is like the punchline. The disease weakening his muscle becomes more ironic after his backstories are unraveled. He no longer knows who he is anymore and his mind becomes corrupted; ironically, his body reacts in the same way. At the same time, his subconsciousness begins to overlap with his reality as he becomes more restless and anxious with the future that is about to come. In a moment, it was a bright future ahead; in a matter of minutes, the very same future becomes completely unprecedented. His career, his love life, his cultural role, and his dream suddenly become at stakes.
Mogul Mowgli, which Ahmed co-writes with American-Pakistani director, Bassam Tariq, feels almost autobiographical with lines extended from Ahmed’s rapper persona, Riz MC. The constant questions of identity becomes a recurring theme in his beats and his writings. Being born in the UK from Pakistani parents has already caught him in the tangled identity crisis; he keeps reminding people that he’s not an immigrant, but the color of his skin, the language he speaks, and the religion he practises suggest otherwise. Being of Pakistan descent probes other curiosities; his people pray in Muslim way, but most of the culture’s derived from Hindu origins. There’s a stain of political elements in it. Living in the US has made matters more complicated for him as everyone is Westernized—in ways of living and, even, in names. Only in the US, Zed finds his moniker—derived from his real name, Zaheer. Where he comes from is no longer relevant for him; what’s made him who he is matters more, instead.
Ahmed’s committed performance channels raw energy into burst of words and intensities. As his character swims deep into parallel memories entangled his and his father’s (Alyy Khan), Ahmed shows a genuine showcase of mental deterioration—often accompanied by meditative, dreamlike moments and thought-provoking raps. Zed’s tumultuous relationship with his father is another story to ponder upon in Mogul Mowgli. With Zed, who seems authentic to Ahmed, the patriarch figure becomes a rugged mirror to reflect upon. From there, the fear discover its stem—from generational trauma and cultural shock.
The whole odyssey that Zed has to take in this movie feels harrowing and sardonic at the same time; and yet, at certain points, his whole crisis is genuinely funny. A thoughtful observation of identity always becomes the muscle of Mogul Mowgli while Riz Ahmed’s poignant performance the brain. It’s heavy with cultural subtext and flooded with electrifying emotion to showcase what matters most; but, the story itself is never heavy. It’s thought-provoking, but never condescending.