Riz Ahmed’s latest offering feels very apt for 2020, with its central theme dancing around the fear that comes with the reality of our existence. Riz plays Zed, a British Pakistani rapper residing in New York and on the cusp of ‘making it’, getting ready to embark on a US tour. But first, Zed decides to go home to London to check in with his family.
The first moment of the movie where your heart drops is when Zed has a moment alone in the bathroom and he punches his leg in an attempt to feel it. We all know what a dead leg feels like, but the scene evokes a feeling of dread. It later turns out that Zed has an autoimmune disease.
The film opens with Zed rapping venomously, spitting into the mic until his face contorts and he falls to the stage floor, every word coming from his gut. He climbs some stage apparatus and his energy is palpable through the screen, which makes watching his decline in physical health even more painful. Zed starts his story as if he is an immortal and so we watch his mortality and in turn, his ego breakdown as the movie goes on.
This movie feels like it was made for us. When I say us, I mean British Pakistanis specifically. The references were delicious, and I lapped up every single one. They say representation is important, and of course I know it is – but that is really enforced when you GET that representation, when you see conversations you’ve had while smoking in the rain under a bus stop in south London reenacted on the big screen at the London Film Festival, when you’re the only one laughing in a (small, social distanced) sea of white film critics who don’t get it, who will never get it. It’s nice to be the one on the inside, for once.
There’s a moment where Zed goes to the mosque and when he comes out, he walks to the back alley and lights a spliff (Riz’s lyric “I blaze hard after mosque” comes to mind). A ‘fan’ sees him and Zed offers some of the joint (ah, pre-coronavirus times) and the fan chastises him for passing him the smoke with his left hand. “You should pass things with your right hand, brother,” says the fan. “But this [spliff] is haram!” Zed replies in disbelief, and I laughed along with him as the fan insisted it was makruh.
This movie is all about the human experience and a deeper moment can be found in the mosque moment, where Ahmed explores the human nature of living as both sinner and saint.
When Zed goes to the mosque with his family to pray, you feel the intensity of his visit – that feeling of coming to a house of God after having not visited Him in a long time. The feelings of guilt and self-discovery hit like a train; I could see it on his face the way I have felt it in my gut when I visited the mosque for the first time after several years.
The film is set around the time of Ramadan, and the issue of identity as a child of diaspora comes up as Zed sits with his family to open their fast (Zed himself is not fasting). Zed’s birth name is Zaheer, and a family member (who was I was excited to see being played by the poet Hussain Manawer!) berates him for shortening his name to make it easier for white people to pronounce – after all, he says, abbreviating our names is an insult to those who named us. Zaheer insists ‘Zed’ is an identity he carved for himself, but even he doesn’t even look like he believes that. My name is Maryam but I’ve been called Maz since I was 10 years old. In that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder who had given me my alternative identity – had it really been me, or had it purely been an attempt to assimilate into a society that would never accept us anyway?
A week before I watched Mogul Mowgli, my partner happened to give me a book called ‘The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told’. The book featured a short story called Toba Tek Singh, written by Saadat Hasan Manto. The story centred around patients in a mental institution in Lahore and their devastated reaction to Partition. Where was the town Toba Tek Singh now? Was it in Pakistan, or India? The question was enough to inspire a spiral of madness. The short story remains a powerful representation of the feeling of displacement that we’ve inhabited ever since Partition – our parents came to England and gave birth to us and yet the trauma of Partition stayed in our blood – you know, the deep sense that something is not quite right. Where is home? Anyway, receiving that book felt like a cosmic coincidence, because the story of Toba Tek Singh played a fundamental part in Mogul Mowgli.
When Zed returned to his family home in London it filled me with a sense of familiarity I’d never seen on the big screen before – old stickers of Pakistan tacked to furniture, Natco products in the kitchen, his mother burning chillies over the stove as a Nazar (evil eye) detector. Watching Zed rummage through his father’s cassette tapes reminded me of when I used to rummage through my father’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan tapes.
Zed had a nostalgic moment when he found a jungle set on an Urdu cassette he’d recorded over called “songs about Partition”. The man on the cassette cover had masked his face with hanging flowers, electric yellow and orange. The man dressed in flowers haunts Zed throughout the movie, a symbol of partition, a symbol of generational trauma. A man who was driven mad with a simple question: where was Toba Tek Singh post Partition? Where was home now?
We see through flashbacks that Zed’s father endured the horrors of Partition first hand, having travelled from India to Pakistan on a train. Once Zed is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, the hallucinations begin. The man with flowers for a face follows him. The tremors Zed’s father relives from his train journey from India to Pakistan tremble through his son as he lays in the hospital bed. Generational trauma remains a consistent theme. Thoughts become things and surrealism builds.
A particularly painful moment came in a dream state as we see Zed’s father put on a suit and tie, then a retail t-shirt, then a restaurant apron, then, as he tries to put on overalls, he collapses. Our parents tried all types of occupations, worked themselves into the ground to try and find their place on this little grey island, and watching Zed’s father on the floor wrapped in layers of attempted occupational uniforms broke me alittle. It was a reminder that we’ll never grasp the gravity of how hard our parents worked for us to be able to pursue our dreams, and in Zed’s case, a rap career.
The detail in Mogul Mowgli was just beautiful (shout out director Bassam Tariq, who did a breathtaking job). My favourite touch may have been Zed’s hospital gown, which throughout the film became more and more adorned with south Asian detailing – those tiny little embroidered circles with mirrors inside that are sewn onto south Asian outfits – I don’t even know what they are called! But seeing them made me feel closer to home… Wherever that is. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Mogul Mowgli serves as a sharp reminder that the idea of home is complex. One line that sticks out for me in one of Riz’s songs (which features in the film) is “kidnapped by empire and diaspora fostered us”. I rewound that part of the song back so many times I lost count.
Speaking of notable quotes, the way Ahmed portrays somebody who is trying to make a success out of their creativity will resonate with those in the sector – especially in a time where the government is telling us to retrain, as if the arts aren’t integral for the human spirit to survive. There’s a scene where Zed is in bed with his girlfriend when he starts rapping. “Legacies outlive love,” he mutters into her ear, and I’ve thought that myself more than once. Whilst it isn’t really true, it feels like the safest option. In a world of people who have the capability to tear you apart once you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to put your heart in their hands, sometimes just giving your all to your legacy seems the best option. People can leave you – your legacy won’t. But your legacy won’t look after you when your body fails you. What’s a legacy worth without love?
The common – and tragic – reaction to a movie like this is that it becomes a sub-genre, niche, for a small audience. The beauty of Mogul Mowgli, and every movie that has been made with a protagonist who is a person of colour, is that whilst it is unapologetically for us, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry a universal theme that resonates in the pits of all of our stomachs. After all, the human experience remains the same no matter where you are from. And that’s just the point of the film. I just hope it gets the appreciation it deserves.