Doubt and Discontent are two prominent virtues of an Artist. The lives of the most passionate artists are a living hell, mostly because they are unsatisfied with their own labor. Due to this, they are always grinding, torturing themselves, and pushing themselves off the limits. A very few strong souls are capable of such receptions. Either they become “the artist” or their lives become “an art.” In, “Mogul Mowgli,” the protagonist, who is an artist, goes through a tunnel of transformations and becomes the art in the end. The artist? Let’s talk about him.
Riz Ahmed, an actor trying to break the stereotype in Hollywood, has written the film himself along with the director, Bassam Tariq. Eventually, to showcase his labor, Riz has also co-produced the film and his acting skills show vigor and rage, loudly calling out to the fraternity and proclaiming that he is not just an Asian man fit for Asian Roles. He is much more than his ethnicity.
‘Mogul Mowgli’ Plot Summary
The word “Mowgli” in the film title refers to the protagonist, a feral boy in The Jungle Book. Mowgli was a daydreamer and was raised by the animals of the jungle. Thus, his roots and culture belonged to the jungle and not the parents he was born to. In “Mogul Mowgli,” the protagonist Zed is an aspiring rapper waiting for his big break. For most sorts, he is “Mowgli” a dreamer living in denial, trying to deny his roots, upbringing, and everything. His only existence is his Rap-music, and due to his obsession, he is always practicing his raps, whether it is in dreams, or while he is trying to sleep.
Zed finally bags a European tour in America but looking at his obsession and narcissistic behavior, his girlfriend suggests Zed visit his family, which could be actually good for him.
Zed finally arrives at his parent’s house in London. He had been away from his home for 2 years and a series of sequences establish his nostalgia. His parents are like any other Pakistani family with tradition and culture at their core, totally contrary to the life Zed was living in America. The friction between Zed and his father, Bashir (Alyy Khan) is quickly established. Bashir is an orthodox man who has still holds onto his values and culture but he is receptive to Zed’s dream as well.
The major conflict begins when Zed experiences numbness in his legs. Initially, he avoids it but after a physical brawl with a fan, he faces a total numbness in his body and wakes up in a hospital, only to find out later that he is suffering from a muscle-related autoimmune condition. In simpler terms, his White blood cells are attacking his muscles and organs and unfortunately, there is no cure to it. The doctor advises him to undergo an experimental fusion therapy which could also lead to his infertility.
The story further explores Zed’s inability to perform in the European Tour, his only chance to showcase his talent. While bed-ridden, he faces his father’s insecurity about Zed’s infertility that leads to a further clash between the two. Pinned by circumstances, Zed has fewer options left, how will deal with it, is what matters in the end.
Dream, Despair, and Denial
There are many layers in a well-made film and to perceive each, would be close to impossible. A person perceives the strongest layers that hit him. For me, “Mogul Mowgli” runs on three prominent layers, which are, his dreams, which bring Despair, and his Denial to reap those dreams till the very end.
The key flaw to Zed’s character was his narcissism and obsession. He ran away from anything that came in between him and his dream, whether it was his girlfriend, or his family, or his culture. He was so madly pursuing his art that he lived in denial of the work of other artists, for example, the work of his peer, RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan). Narcissism breeds jealousy and possessiveness and Zed showcased both virtues in personal and professional life. Anger was just an addition to his ignorance and un-receptiveness.
When the disease hits Zed, all his flaws that once acted as a defense mechanism and fueled his art flushes instantly. He was helpless and became a cripple. He can’t walk without support and performing becomes even more far-fetched in such a condition. His dreams and denial thus bring him immense despair.
The Full Circle
A creature, unable to fight back or run away gulps his anger like venom. Zed’s father, Bashir is constantly hovering over his head with all his prayers and religious psalms. Something Zed had always been running away from. There are few peculiar instances, where Bashir arrogantly and ignorantly talks with Zed’s mother, calling him “Aurat (a Woman)” and not referring to her by her name. Expression of disgust is clearly visible on Zed’s face (acting genius of Riz). Few of these sequences establish Zed’s hatred or ignorance towards his house, and any Asian man could relate to this minute layer underlined in the subplot.
Unfortunately, a bedridden Zed cannot run away from this trauma that he might have faced in his childhood. However, the father-son friction act as the only way out of misery because, it is the root of all-cause. How?
Zed is suffering from a genetic disease. He can run away from home, values, culture but not from the genes. It is nature’s way of saying, your roots are going to haunt you forever, and either you can make peace with it and be happy or keep fighting with it, and be in despair. This full-circle completes when both Zed and Bashir accept each other. Bashir in the end listens to RPG’s version of the rap that originally Zed had created and tells him, “I like your version better.” The father and the son started singing the rap when Zed finally says, “You never came to any shows. Now, you get your own.” With the kind of energy and angst, Zed performs for his dad. A full circle of denial ends, when Bashir accepts his son’s dream and aspirations.
Mirage of Nostalgia
Art is carved out of imagination. For example, in writing, you re-create your experiences by mixing it with reality and imagination. Zed does the same thing with his rap, his words act as a mirror to his past, things he read, experienced, or felt. In a few of the scenes, Zed is performing in his dream or in hallucination before letting it out to the world. As artists, we all do that. Actors hold a chaotic world in their heads, referred to as emotional memory, popularized as a method.
In “Mogul Mowgli,” Zed’s hallucinations portray his childhood memories and trauma. And when he is sticking to the bed, these hallucinations became more real and peeped into his current reality. There are too many references in these mirage visuals which have been artistically integrated into the character’s arc by the writer, Riz Ahmed and Bassam Tariq.
The three prominent hallucinations repeated throughout are visuals of a Groom with a flower mask used in Indian marriages, A train compartment with dead ambiance, and feathers, signifying a train during the Indian-Pakistan Partition, and a third of his father, looking out for Zed in a marriage.
The groom constantly appears in Zed’s hallucinations chants “Toba Tek Singh,” a story and a character written by a famous Indian-Pakistani author, Saadat Hasan Manto. The conflict of Toba Tek Singh was that he was a person who went mad after the partition because he didn’t accept the separation and in the end died on the border. Zed is also stuck in between two worlds. His roots and his American dreams. Toba Tek Singh even becomes his famous rap in the end.
His father’s hallucinations suggest that Zed is running away from his father’s wish, who wanted Zed to join the family business and run a medical store with him. Zed had other dreams but his father’s insistence haunted him throughout. There could be other meanings to these visuals because the imagery is always open to speculations.
A very subtle but hard-hitting hallucination puts light upon Riz Ahmad’s own struggle in life. He is timidly trying to come up with a rap in a rap battle when he accidentally spurs a racist remark on a black man who calls Zed an immigrant. It portrays Riz’s own sufferings whereas as a writer he is trying to speak that being called a “nigger” hits the same, as when you call a Pakistani, a terrorist, and an immigrant.
A very long explanation, I know. But “Mogul Mowgli” gives you much to ponder. When an actor writes, he makes sure he embeds all his sorrows and struggles into the subtext in the form of minute character layers. This film written by Riz Ahmad has many. The film is shot in a 4:3 ratio with incredibly enchanting cinematography by Anika Summerson. In short, the film hits all the right chords. It isn’t pretentious. If you are into films that explore diversity, do not miss “Mogul Mowgli.”
“Mogul Mowgli” is streaming on BFI.