In Mogul Mowgli, identity, culture, and what they demand of us are overwhelming. In a cerebral attack on the senses, Bassam Tariq’s direction uses sights, sounds, and smells to disorientate. Smoke from fragrant cooking ingredients rises in the background of his 4:3, home-video adjacent frame, songs and languages fill ears, and vivid dreams transport us into the fractured mind of Zed (Riz Ahmed) — a British Pakastani rapper on the cusp of greatness.
Right after he learns he’s landed a big tour in America, Zed is diagnosed with a degenerative immune disease while visiting family in England: his body can’t recognize him, so it attacks itself, weakening his muscles. Once on the path to bigger things and now confined to the walls of a hospital shot by DoP Annika Summerson as if it were a prison, Zed faces not only the challenge of his illness, but his severely disconnected roots, too.
At first glance, this story appears to be about ego and resentment of an insular cultural identity. In truth, Mowgli is far more complex. Zed raps on stage about identity politics and “no man’s land” — referring to his inability to assert where his home truly is — and as as the film goes on, it becomes clear he doesn’t hate his roots; he simply doesn’t know where to place himself. Nowhere seems to be right for him and the world doesn’t allow him space to self-assert. His resentment grows from a lack of agency in his life and person-hood. There’s anger there, displayed frenetically in Ahmed’s on-stage physicality. Zed is pulled in different directions, one limb dragged towards religion and family, and another towards a music career that would lift his parents out of financial hardship and allow him to find wholeness through his passion: rap music.
Tariq and Ahmed’s screenplay utilizes hallucinations to deliver cerebral sequences that give insight to Zed’s emotional state and his splintered sense of self. In between bits of conscious rapping, which is portrayed almost as a disruptive tic that takes over, creative camera work and noise and music that battle for dominance transport us to Zed’s visions. Imagery and sound design work to unsettle us as Zed is haunted by the image of a man with colorful flowers draped over his face — taunting and warning him about the distance between Zed and his community. There’s almost always dead space above characters’ heads, like spirits are rising above their bodies, leaving Zed in his helpless state, unable to even go to the bathroom without aid. It’s all a bit self-indulgent and overplayed, but effective nonetheless.
Where he once had the prospect of seeing different parts of the world on tour, now Zed only sees the greenish-blueish walls of the hospital and the physical therapy room he frequents. When his trendy clothing is swapped out for a gown and sweatpants, there’s little left to secure his place in the world. Zed floats between music, prayer, and family tiffs without an anchor. In one scene, he’s using the help of parallel bars to walk, moving slowly as soft instrumental music plays quietly in the background. It looks like ballet, in a strange way, and is alien when compared to the film’s opening sequence — an intense, jumpy performance where Ahmed’s jolts and jitters are as instrumental to the angst of the performance as his lyrics are.
Sudha Bhuchar and Alyy Khan deliver beautiful supporting performances as Zed’s parents, Nasra and Bashir. Bashir’s unspoken sadness in response to Zed’s emotional distance and Nasra’s motherly role as a moderator in her husband and son’s arguments are crucial to the crux of Mowgli’s narrative. There isn’t so much of a story arc here as there is a reckoning: Tariq doesn’t seek to condemn Zed for wanting to get away from the exhausting inner-conflict; there’s no path to redemption or apology because Zed has little to apologize for other than occasional insensitivity. Conversely, Tariq empathizes with Bashir’s disappointment and anger at how quick his son is to devalue his life and accomplishments. Zed’s doctor mentions his disease has a hereditary component, an obvious but affecting metaphor for the existential troubles passed down from his parents.
In one particularly emotional scene, Bashir is seen putting on the work clothes of a previous business venture, then another set, and another, until he’s covered in colors and logos. Zed, weak in his bed, is unable to prevent him from doing this, indicative of the turmoil he’s in as he realizes he can’t invest in any new business for his father or give his mum the money to stop working overtime.
It’s likely some will feel the film’s ending is unsatisfying, as it comes out of the blue and without warning, but there’s no way to wrap up what is tackled here with a neat bow. Mowgi‘s beauty is in its confident assertion that there is no answer or cure for the simultaneous love and resentment we feel for who and what we are. To say otherwise would be to undermine the complexity of existing in the margins. This story is more concerned with learning to live with complicated feelings than it is concerned with providing a comforting resolution, which would diminish the scale of such worries. There are other films that end with their previously lost protagonists coming to terms with every facet of themselves after an epiphany or experience, but that’s not always real life. Real life, Mowgli says, is so much more confusing, intricate, and fascinating.
In its celebration and exploration of faith, family, and passion, Mogul Mowgli is one of the most interesting films to come out of 2020, and in a world where politics and society try to box people in and prescribe traits of right and wrong, it provides a space for its characters to exist in both disorder and discovery without shushing them.