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The BFI London Film Festival

Mogul Mowgli (2020)

Timing is everything, in music and in life. If you come in a little too late or off the beat, you miss your chance and spoil everything. No one knows this better than Zed (Riz Ahmed), an exceptional rapper who is finally about to get his big break, opening for a major artist on an American tour. But his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) sneers about him rapping constantly about where he’s from when he hasn’t seen his parents in two years. So Zed reconsiders. And as they say, he who hesitates is lost.

When Zed goes to West London to surprise his parents, Bashir (Alyy Khan) and Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar), they welcome him with open, albeit sarcastic, arms. And it’s very lucky he does, because almost immediately he collapses, with an illness that is not just an illness. Oh, no. He has a giant metaphor. And while illness-as-metaphor is not necessarily a bad thing, Mr. Ahmed (who co-wrote the script with director Bassam Tariq) wants this metaphor to cover too much. It’s not only tied into Zed’s attempts at a musical career with a different cultural history to his own. It’s more than his sense of alienation from his family. It’s not a coincidence that his first collapse is immediately after a fan denied a selfie calls him a coconut. As the cherry on top, it’s tied into this father’s childhood experiences as an immigrant who fled home during the Partition.

To quote the white nurse asking her French colonizer boyfriend in “South Pacific” for three sugars in her coffee, it’s a big load for a demitasse to carry. Scenes of Zed suddenly having to decide if he values his fertility more than his ability to walk are mixed with meetings with Vaseem (Anjana Vasan), his manager, who is deeply supportive of Zed but must provide an opening act for the tour or face financial ruin. And while all this is going on, Zed is having visions of an old-school style singer with a covered face (Jeff Mirza) as well as flashbacks to his father’s memories of fleeing for his life as a child. It’s just too much.

The trouble, of course, is that the intersectionality of “Mogul Mowgli” is the point. Mr. Ahmed is an astonishing rapper, with excellent flow and pointed, angry raps about his life experiences. The Anwars’ experience of life has been utterly shaped by their ethnicity and the racism they’ve endured. And Zed’s life would have been completely different had his collapse happened at literally any other time. But to cram all this into 90 minutes, when for most of that time Zed is in a hospital gown, struggling to walk or whining to his parents about his misfortune, requires both better pacing and a bigger heart.

Despite the glowing, radiant talent of Mr. Ahmed, the movie drags badly, with the unstructured flashbacks and hallucinations becoming increasingly frustrating to the viewer. That said, the low budget and quick-and-dirty shooting style, which seemed to include a few actual hospitals, works well for the material. But what doesn’t work is Zed. He is just too much of a bastard, sympathetic only in comparison to his rival R.P.G. (Nabhaan Rizwan, sporting some truly heroic facial tattoos), an inauthentic stoner whose burgeoning success is ashes in Zed’s mouth. But at least R.P.G. is self-aware – and also has the best line in the film: “There’s no Drake without Whoopi Goldberg.” Zed seems to think that the fact of his talent and his wanting should be enough to open doors, and he pouts like a brat as he learns, over and over again, that life isn’t like that. If the metaphor had been pared back, Zed would have had fewer lessons to learn, which might have sharpened the plot enough to solve the film’s pacing issues.

Alternatively, Zed’s illness could have been just plain bad luck, with how he handled it as the metaphor for everything else. But that doesn’t seem to be the point “Mogul Mowgli” wants to make. Messrs. Tariq and Ahmed want to tell us that we can’t ever escape who we are. Our families and our personal history is the only thing that matters, and nothing we do as individuals will make a difference against the weight of history bearing down on us. Is this the message the world needs right now? Time will tell.


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