Interrogating cultural identity in British drama 'Mogul Mowgli'

30 Oct 2020 BY Steven Ryder in Film Features

5 mins
Mogul Mowgli Image
Mogul Mowgli Image

With UK society growing more culturally diverse over the years, more films are beginning to interrogate cultural values, traditions and beliefs, and the wide range of which that can be found within cities, communities and even families. A significant portion of the population belong to families with a mixture of cultures and beliefs across generations, often through religion or heritage, a social concept known as 'diaspora'.

Mogul Mowgli, which had its UK premiere recently at the London Film Festival, investigates diaspora in contemporary society. Anchored by an astonishingly personal performance from British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, the film is a whirlwind tour through one man's internal struggles as he must navigate the multiple and fractured layers of his life and personal history. Ahmed plays Zed, a rapper from England who has recently found a modicum of success overseas in the United States. On the eve of a huge career touring opportunity, he decides to pay a visit to his family back home in Wembley, London where he is suddenly struck down by a debilitating illness, meaning he must reluctantly sacrifice his career for his health and focus on building his life back up at home.

If discovered by young people with a similar background to Zed's, this is a film that is sure to resonate and assure them that their voices not only deserve to be heard but that they can say something important and valuable. The power of Zed's story certainly seems to be born from the attachment to the material that Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq have, seeking to ensure that its creativity and energy will not be lost on younger audiences.

After getting his breakout role in the thriller Nightcrawler and eventually earning himself a role in the Star Wars franchise, Riz Ahmed stands alongside other emerging British actors from recent years - such as John Boyega, Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya - not only in the quality of his work, but in his desire to nurture more well-rounded and interesting roles for non-white actors. He has spoken in the House of Commons about the importance of diversity in the media as well as directing a short film himself earlier this year, The Long Goodbye, that tackles the connections between racism and Brexit. Director Bassam Tariq, an American born in Pakistan, is more well-known for his documentary work that foregrounds the Muslim experience (as well as owning a Halal butcher shop in New York called ‘Honest Chops') but with this project he moved into fictional storytelling for the first time. After meeting and realising they shared a similar view of creativity and contemporary Islamic identity, Ahmed and Tariq set out to write a film together, which eventually morphed into Mogul Mowgli.

Despite being from different countries, the authenticity of their shared experience shines through in the film, beginning with the way that Zed interacts with his family once he returns home. After being away for two years, the distance between Zed and his more traditional Muslim parents has become unnatural; they do not seem to understand his musical aspirations or his career trajectory and urge him to return to the local mosque that now feels alien. Later, when Zed finds a cassette tape in his room with a combination of traditional Islamic music and an early rap song that he recorded over it, we get a metaphorical sense of the priorities and identity he has developed over the course of his life. Whilst Zed's story is unique and veers into darker psychological territory, Mogul Mowgli does share similarities with other British films such as Gurinder Chadha's feel-good stories Blinded by the Light and Bend it Like Beckham in that it aims to draw the invisible lines that connect people so strongly to their cultural past.

Whilst Mogul Mowgli is very much rooted in reality, the film does not simply recreate the external life of a second-generation immigrant. Ahmed and Tariq aim to acknowledge the layers of complexity that make a person who they are, and the film reflects this, becoming increasingly surreal over its running time. With Zed's illness fluctuating and constant anxiety about his health and future overwhelming him, he becomes trapped in his nightmares; Islamic iconography such as religious figures in ornate make-up clash with the dimly lit grime of an underground rap battle. Fears and memories play out in striking ways and, at times, the film resembles a horror movie, forcing us to empathise with Zed in the same way we did with Chris in Get Out, another film that tackles the minority experience head-on.

Painting a complex but somehow universal portrait of the immigrant experience that is rarely seen in British cinema, the film captures both the chaos and joy that comes with being torn between two identities. Mogul Mowgli challenges its audience, regardless of their background, developing conversation between heritage and cultural expression and providing a powerful voice in the wider issue of representation on screen.

Mogul Mowgli is released in UK cinemas on Friday 30 October.

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Steven Ryder, Curation Officer

Steven has an MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation from the National Film and Television School. He has previously worked for various exhibitors around England and currently freelances as a film critic/podcaster.

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