On the face of it, you might feel like Mogul Mowgli is a story you’ve heard before. Young, talented, hungry rapper on the cusp of success has to reconcile his past, while dealing with a turbulent present and uncertain future? Perhaps, but honestly, this is a film that asks you to lose yourself in a very different moment.
That’s because first and foremost, Mogul Mowgli isn’t a film whose chief concern is the craft of music or the lifestyle that comes with it. Riz Ahmed’s Zed is, after all, a character who has apparently been in this game for some time. In fact, after 15 years of refining his sound and building a following, you get the sense he’s an artist who already knows who he is – he just needs the chance to tell other people.
The film opens by throwing you right into one of his aggressive and electrifying performances, before delving into the stream of consciousness wordplay and pursuit of lyrical perfection that have clearly pushed him along for all these years. It’s a first act that invites you into his world of restlessness and desire, before plunging you into a second act of chaos and paranoia. It’s also here we’re also introduced to his would-be nemesis and successor RPG, in a hilarious and sadly brief turn by Nabhaan Rizwan. But while he may be the threat that looms over Zed’s shoulder, RPG is a very different kind of rapper. Lacking the thoughtful, politically-charged anger of Ahmed’s character, he’s the Flavour Flav to Zed’s Chuck D, the ODB to his Method Man or, as he might put it, the Drake to his Whoopi Goldberg.
And while I must admit, this is a part of the story I’d have loved to revel in much more, that’s simply not the film Mogul Mowgli wants to be. In fact, once you have that solid layer of context, it gets busy becoming something with much more depth. As Zed faces a debilitating illness that forces him to cancel his upcoming tour – handing the opportunity instead to RPG – the more chaotic elements of his life; his upbringing, his heritage and his familial relationship with Pakistan, come flooding in to overwhelm his senses. And it’s here in his darkest and weakest hour, that Zed has to physically and mentally wrestle all of it, while seeing everything he’s worked for to date slip further and further out of reach.
This is a film that’s as rich with visual metaphor as it is obsessed with internal struggle, and both are delivered expertly by director Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed respectively. One might argue that it’s also a film which shifts so seamlessly between reality and fantasy, that it often becomes difficult to assign meaning to – but in the midst of that dreamlike madness is where you’ll also find its most interesting and introspective moments.
Apparently not the only film this year where we’ll see him as a musician whose music career is threatened by ill health, it seems inevitable Riz Ahmed will be the one who takes the spoils here. And while that’s difficult begrudge him with such a fascinating lead performance, I’d say Mogul Mowgli probably deserves your praise to be directed in a few different places.