Riz Ahmed, in case you don’t know, spends some of his free time performing as Riz MC. If you know that, you might get a feeling during his latest film “Mogul Mowgli” that Ahmed, as Zaheer, an up-and-coming rapper who goes by Zed, is pulling from the heart. Then again, it could just be Bassam Tariq’s meticulous directing and writing (Ahmed is co-credited on the script) and an exceptional thespian (also Ahmed) pouring it all out.
The first time we meet Zed, he’s rapping at a New York club, launching poetic and witty verses with a shrewd desire for identity. The film’s first shot, however, is a delicate and surreal track through what’s later revealed as the train his father (Alyy Khan) hid in as a child to escape from India to Pakistan. It’s the first time the train appears, but “Mogul Mowgli” is haunted by it, frequently interweaving clips of it after Zed’s partner Bina (Aiysha Hart) dumps him at the beginning and tells him to visit his parents, Pakistani immigrants who raised Zed in Britain.
“Mogul Mowgli” is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, and while Zed inhabits the stage, even clambering up it and nearly escaping the camera (or is it our gaze?), he is boxed in. History beckons from behind, the western crowd in front shouts his praise, but neither is his home. It’s a familiar experience for the children of immigrants and as Zed raps, “only a few fit these labels, so I’m repping for the rest of us.”
At once, the 21st century and the complexities of his past — for example, the contradiction between his British citizenship and the effects of colonialism on his family — both try to lay claim to him. He doesn’t seem comfortable with either, and sometimes what he’s comfortable with is uncomfortable with him. Later, we get sucked into Zed’s nightmares, one of which takes us to a rap battle in which a group of Black artists accuses Zed of appropriating the form.
It’s not clear whether the rap battle is real or imagined, reality or dream, but “Mogul Mowgli” brushes that off. This is a film of moods, and the scene’s gravity is that the stage is the one place where Zed’s opposing worlds can’t intrude. He can burst outside of everything around him, vaulted past the blur of atmosphere and into space, pleading with what he hopes to be a receptive void — yet he’s brought back down, hard, not by accusations of appropriation, but by an autoimmune condition.
That’s right, this is another Riz Ahmed vehicle about a musician on the cusp of success cratered by illness. Hot on the heels of “Sound of Metal,” it’s only natural to worry that “Mogul Mowgli” will resemble the former, but Tariq and Ahmed are quick to distinguish this film. In fact, Zed’s condition only arises suddenly about halfway through, when, with Zed unable to leave his hospital bed without assistance, the diversions to surrealism take hold.
His physical condition is rarely the film’s focus. A good thing, as the film’s most grounded scenes are home to its worst dialogue — as when Zed blandly insists he’s fine to be discharged (he can’t walk). Instead, “Mogul Mowgli” uses Zed’s condition as fertile land to make his anxieties abstract, unspooling his and his family’s identities in dreamlike scenes. The drama turns domestic, layered with intergenerational trauma, and it overwhelmingly falls on the emotive Ahmed and Khan to express for the film.
In the last few frames, Ahmed’s face snaps to the camera, surprised and afraid. He seems to convey a fear that we’ll attach a label to him, right down to his name. Using Zed or Zaheer is a choice he makes early in the film, but by the end he seems to be reconsidering, and asking us to wait until he’s ready. “Mogul Mowgli” suggests the abstract; for Zed and for us, anything else would be too simple.