Mogul Mowgli tells the story of Zed (Riz Ahmed), an aspiring rapper who has been toiling away in the business for fifteen years. With plans for an upcoming tour and positive word of mouth, Zed appears to finally be on the verge of his big breakthrough. However, while visiting his family, Zed suddenly finds himself in hospital with a strange degenerative illness. Unable to walk on his own, Zed is forced to choose between his health and career while also making peace with his past, his family and the uncertainty of his future.
Directed by Bassam Tariq, Mogul Mowgli is an intimate and powerful look at one man’s struggle to build a legacy in the face of unexpected pain. While the story works well on its own, Mowgli works primarily due to the strength and intensity of Riz Ahmed. As we’ve seen in his past work, Ahmed is one of those rare performers who is always willing to commit to a character with deep passion. Having co-written the script with Tariq, the film feels like a personal project for him and he once again fully invests himself into his character’s emotional journey with authenticity and intensity. (Incidentally, it’s also worth noting that fans of his acting may be unaware of his solid rap career that he has built under the name Riz MC, a talent that is fully on display within this film.)
With its emphasis on musical trauma, Mowgli will invariably draw comparisons to Ahmed’s most recent work in Sound of Metal. Though they are very different in style and context, there are enough similarities between the two projects that make it feel like a spiritual sequel of sorts to the film. Like its predecessor, Mowgli tells the story of a musician who is dealt a crushing blow to his career after a medical emergency derails his plans. What’s more, just like Metal, this film sends Ahmed’s character on a quest for identity that carries him deep into his soul where he’s forced to realize what’s most important to him.
However, what sets Mowgli apart from its spiritual successor is its emphasis on culture. Just as his rap career is finally about to take off, Zed finds himself torn between worlds. Having spent the last fifteen years working his way to success in the United States, his return home is wrought with tension from a family that feels as though he has abandoned their traditions. Whether it’s changing his name or embracing a style of music that remains foreign to them, his family fears that their prodigal son has erased his own culture from his life for the sake of American success. Under pressure to embrace his heritage, Zed goes on a journey to reconnect with his soul which challenges him to reconcile his past with his future. While his voice and style may differ from the culture of his family, Zed simply wants to be heard by them.
As he sees his health slip away, Zed’s greatest fear is that people will not know who he is. To him, leaving his mark on the world is an essential part of his dream, whether it’s through having children of his own or through his music. For Zed, music is his chance to be heard and pass his story on to others. In many ways, it’s both his legacy and his children. With each beat and verse, Zed uses his music to give him strength and help him process the challenges that he faces.
In short, music helps him to tell his story.
Well-performed and executed, Mogul Mowgli is an engaging look at what it means to reconcile who you are with who you want to be. As Zed wrestles with his cultural and physical journeys, his music provides him an outlet that allows him to work through his pain. His story matters and he understands that it needs to be heard by others. Whether or not this story is close to Ahmed’s own personal one is unclear but it honestly doesn’t matter. What matters most is that he certainly seems invested in sharing it with us.
Mogul Mowgli is available in theatres on Friday, September 3rd, 2021.