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'Mogul Mowgli' Review: Riz Ahmed radically reinvents his Oscar-nominated role

Riz Ahmed and cowriter-director Bassam Tariq explore a young artist's career at a personal and professional crossroads in this powerful drama.

In 'Mogul Mowgli' Riz Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper facing his biggest career opportunity at the same time he succumbs to a degenerative autoimmune disease.
(Image: © Strand Releasing)

Our Verdict

Comparisons to 'Sound of Metal' are superficial at best as Riz Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq explore a young artist's identity and upbringing with vivid, unforgettable specificity.

For

  • 🎤 Ahmed cowrites the script to create a vivid portrait not only of the rapper's career but the upbringing that shaped him, down to the last verse.
  • 🎤 Director Bassam Tariq merges dream sequences and disappointing realities with seamless, skillful technique.

Against

  • 🎤 Its seeming familiarity after 'Sound of Metal' may surprise audiences as they see everything that's different.

Mogul Mowgli is a particularly interesting movie for Riz Ahmed to make at this moment in his career. The story of a young Pakistani rapper unexpectedly forced to contend with an autoimmune disease on the eve of his commercial breakthrough, it resembles The Sound of Metal, the film for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination just months ago, in a lot of ways both superficial and substantial. But it also highlights a timeless truth about movies in general, which is that many stories are similar, but that doesn’t make them the same — and Ahmed’s latest is a vital, unique piece of work, no matter how many ways it overlaps with its predecessor. Cowritten by the actor along with its director, documentarian Bassam Tariq, Mogul Mowgli chronicles artistic temperament in a specific and likely for many unfamiliar cultural context, as Ahmed again demonstrates his skillful versatility and mesmerizing charisma on screen.

Ahmed plays Zed, a British-born Panistaki rapper wrapping his first U.S. shows with a sold-out performance in New York, and the promising news of an opening slot on a bigger artist’s European tour that starts in less than a week. Propelled by a breakup with his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart, Colette), Zed decides to visit his parents Bashir (Alyy Khan) and Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) for the first time in two years. He immediately remembers why he left their smothering protection — “Do people even remember the opening act?” his father asks when he reveals the news of his spot on the other artist’s tour. But as he gently yields to their familial and spiritual traditions, he succumbs to a debilitating illness, later diagnosed as a degenerative autoimmune disease, and ends up in the hospital.

His manager Vaseem (Anjana Vasan) reveals that she had to pay the headliner to get Zed onto the tour, and to fill the spot, she enlists a heavily tattooed rapper named RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan) who more or less stands for everything he hates to replace him. In the meantime, he faces a difficult decision about the treatment that his doctors propose: do nothing and his illness will continue to worsen, or participate in an experimental treatment that has a good chance of success, but at the cost of permanent infertility. As his father tries to convince him to try a more homeopathic remedy that won’t rob him of grandchildren, Zed slowly weighs his heritage and his parents’ wishes against the career goals he sees slipping away just as they’re presented, while the rest of the world moves on without him.

There’s a tremendous number of very specific cultural details in Zed’s family life that will undoubtedly ring true to many people with backgrounds like his (whether or not they pursued a career in hip-hop), but what feels universal is the desire for children to strike their own path, to pursue their own goals, and the worry that parents have about protecting their children at the risk of crushing their dreams. The movie hints at the profound and terrifying trauma that Bashir experienced as a child to escape to Britain and build the perhaps underwhelming but secure life he was able to provide for Zed; it’s no wonder that he fears his son’s failure, to the extent that even his attempts to be supportive sound and feel to Zed like the opposite. What’s interesting in contrast is the care and specificity of the identity that Zed (whose real name is Zaheer) builds into his lyrics and his stage persona, a clear reflection of his father’s guiding hand and the heritage from which he was raised; while his career path is not one that Bashir would have chosen for him, Zed’s art is an incisive expression of his upbringing and a general level of social consciousness that shows a pride in his background rather than the distance of his specific vocation as a rapper might suggest.

In fact, Zed’s view of what he does is extremely principled — which is precisely why he hates his colleague RPG so much; the face-tattoed lowest-common-denominator version of what he aspires to do is depressingly popular, and when Zed is waylaid by illness, RPG’s increased chances for success in the rarified niche they both occupy feels like an insult to their culture, meaning both “true” hip-hop lovers and their own as Pakistanis. Again, notwithstanding the specificity of these characters, which Ahmed and Tariq expertly foreground in their script, that is a remarkably common element among aspiring artists, both on film and in real life. It becomes the age-old debate between showmanship and substance, with Zed’s core values, his very identity, at stake between those two poles.

But then also the film does echo many of the details of Sound of Metal, from its main character’s unexpected disability to his inability to take it seriously until it cannot be ignored, the way that his disability brings other elements of his life into sharper focus, and inevitably forces him to come to terms with who he really is and what he wants. To that end, there are scenes that feel almost like copies transplanted from one to the other, thanks in no small part to Ahmed’s visceral reactions as he confronts the new normal that he was utterly unprepared for but cannot escape. And at the same time, the ellipses of his father’s childhood experience projected on his psyche, and the haunting presence of mystical figure named Toba Tek Singh, reminding him of his identity and challenging his progress both personal and professionally, elevate and change this story into something completely different, but equally powerful.

This marks Tariq’s fiction feature debut, and he shows incredible promise, creating a seamless bridge between these hypnotic encounters with the fears and anxieties in Zed’s head, the realities of his illness, and the family and community that gathers around him. It’s a story that explores the rich and detailed life of Pakistani immigrants within their own self-created communities in a way that invites unfamiliar viewers to understand it by spotlighting universal ideas that transcend them. And as its star, Ahmed manages to capture our sympathies without trying to be sympathetic, a talent he has developed with increasing power and accuracy as his roles and challenges have grown in his career.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not Ahmed will receive as much acclaim for his work here as he did for Darius Marder’s film last year. But his work is equal, and its story just as compelling — again, without them being the same. Ultimately, Mogul Mowgli is meaningful, evocative, and even special, whether your entrée to it is as a fan of the actor himself, of hip-hop, or simply of good movies.