Actor/writer/producer Riz Ahmed has had a long road toward success. After spending years as a rapper under the name Riz MC and working in smaller productions, he finally broke out in 2014’s Nightcrawler, followed shortly by his Emmy-winning role in HBO’s The Night Of in 2016 and his Oscar-nominated role in 2020’s Sound of Metal.
Now, he’s back with his most personal role yet in Mogul Mowgli.
Ahmed plays Zed (Riz Ahmed), a British Pakistani rapper who’s gained a nice following because of his highly political songs about his heritage and Muslims in general. With a European tour looming with another big rapper, he seems about ready for his breakout moment. But on a visit back home with his parents, he starts experiencing muscle weakness, leading him to a diagnosis that may derail his whole career before it even gets started.
Written by Ahmed and Bassam Tariq and directed by Tariq, the film takes on a surreal quality as Zed starts to deteriorate mentally, having a series of hallucinations and dreams. Even in his lucid moments, Zed starts to question much about his life, including his commitment to his faith, his Pakistani heritage, his influence on other rappers, and whether him choosing rap for a career is cultural appropriation.
Even before his health issues crop up, Zed is having identity issues. At a family dinner and in a chance meeting with a fan, Zed is called out for being somewhat estranged from his heritage. He goes by Zed, not his real name of Zaheer, to better fit in with the rest of society, and he has fallen out of practice with Muslim customs, alienating some despite the obvious connections in his songs.
The film is unapologetic about immersing itself in Pakistani/Muslim culture with little to no explanation for other audiences. They drop a number of Islamic terms like sunnah, haram, makruh, and bismillah without giving anything other than some context clues. Zed also has a song called “Toba Tek Singh” that many viewers wouldn’t know was a city in Pakistan unless they looked it up. Even the title of the film goes unexplained; for the record, it’s from a song by Riz MC’s group Swet Shop Boys that contrasts different sides of their identity.
Ahmed obviously took much inspiration from being a real-life rapper, as the wordplay of Zed’s songs is fantastic. However, the speed of his rapping and the unfamiliar references he uses could result in confusion for some viewers. A screener had subtitles that greatly aided my comprehension, but theater moviegoers may not be so lucky.
In a quirk of fate/scheduling, Ahmed has released two movies in a row where he plays a musician with a health condition that prevents him from pursuing his music. While the characters and their conditions are much different, the mental anguish that each goes through is similar. For my money, Ahmed’s performance in Sound of Metal had a bigger impact, but anyone who sees Mogul Mowgli first might disagree.
Mogul Mowgli will be a different kind of movie experience for many viewers thanks to its very specific cultural references and symbolism. But at its core it’s about things to which everyone can relate like family, self-doubt, and more, making it a universal story.
Mogul Mowgli is playing at Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra.