If a movie starring Riz Ahmed about a musician sidelined by a medical condition sounds familiar, it should. Last year he was nominated for Best Actor for playing a heavy metal drummer suffering hearing loss in “Sound of Metal.” He returns to theatres this week in “Mogul Mowgli,” a rap drama that treads similar ground but with a whole new attitude.
Ahmed, who co-wrote the script with director Bassam Tariq, stars as Zaheer, a London-born rapper known as Zed to his growing number of fans. His lyrics focus on racism, Islamophobia and the issues he faced as a young British Pakistani man.
Based in New York City, he’s about to embark on a European tour. His soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend (Aiysha Hart)—she’s grown tired of their FaceTime relationship while he’s on the road—thinks he needs to get grounded, to reconnect with his family in England. “For someone who raps so much about where they’re from,” she says, “when was the last time you went home? When was the last time you actually spent time with your family?”
He returns to England, welcomed by his family, even if they disapprove of his career and choices. “I can’t give you my blessing,” says his restaurateur father Bashir (Alyy Khan), “if I don’t believe in it.”
Following a scuffle with a fan, he finds himself in the hospital, diagnosed with a degenerative autoimmune disease.
What exactly is wrong? “Your body can’t recognize itself,” his doctor says, “so it’s attacking itself.”
“If you can walk from that chair to that lift,” says his doctor pointing to the elevator ten feet away, “I’ll discharge you.” He can’t, and his treatment begins as he feels his career slip away.
“Mogul Mowgli” is anchored by a raw nerve of a performance from Ahmed. Bruised, physically and mentally, from the indignity of disease and his dreams slipping away, he vacillates between helplessness and anger, sadness and frustration. It’s powerful but most of all, human. He doesn’t play Zed simply as tragic. He’s often unlikeable, often unsympathetic. You know, human.
Often shot in searing close-up, and dotted with surreal sequences, “Mogul Mowgli” is in your face both visually and emotionally. The stark reality of Zed’s disease is tempered by dreamlike sequences that illustrate the chasm between where he came from, to as he imagined it would be to where it is today. It’s a study of cultural identity, divides in families, how illness defines relationships and masculine ambition. It occasionally bites off more than it can chew, but as uncomfortable as it can get, it is never less than compelling.