If one was just to judge by the logline, the Riz Ahmed-starring drama Mogul Mowgli sounds oddly familiar to the actor’s previous film, Sound of Metal. As in that 2019 Oscar winner, a health crisis threatens the career of an up-and-coming musician, again played by Ahmed. Though both films wrestle with themes of identity, the similarities end there, and this film grapples with that theme from an entirely different angle. Mogul Mowgli emerges as a testament to Ahmed, even beyond his acting ability that was so evident in Sound of Metal, as well to the talents of his co-writer and director Bassam Tariq.
Elements of Ahmed’s own biography as a Pakistani British rapper are echoed in his Mogul Mowgli character, Zaheer, aka Zed, making it a role only he could play. Ahmed easily rhymes complex political lines as Zed, spitting them out with intensity and authenticity — and a speed that would challenge most actors. Watching Zed perform for a small but captivated New York crowd is like catching a legendary MC at the beginning of his ascent, and Zed is indeed on the cusp of finally making it. He gets invited to open for a star on his tour and decides to make his first trip home to London to visit his family in two years. But while there, he begins to suffer debilitating symptoms from a muscle-related autoimmune disorder, which jeopardizes both his career and his life, while he struggles to reconcile his aspirations and choices with his family’s cultural and religious traditions.
With its rich details from every facet of Zed’s life, Mogul Mowgli excels in its specificity. The script from Ahmed and Tariq doesn’t just artfully namecheck J Dilla in a single scene to demonstrate its rap bona fides; throughout the film, it embodies the spirit of hip-hop in a protagonist who is always rhyming, who can’t stop even when his body won’t let him do much else. But the film also dives into the particulars of Zed’s experience as a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in the U.K. whose life isn’t often in line with his Muslim upbringing. It’s no coincidence that Zed’s mysterious ailment was chosen to be a hereditary autoimmune disease in the screenplay; his doctor (Andrea Hart) says, “Your body can’t recognize itself, so it’s attacking itself.” Conflicts arise not only within Zed himself but also with his parents (Alyy Khan and Sudha Buchar), who love their son but want a more traditional life for him.
As director Tariq’s first narrative feature after the documentaries These Birds Walk (2012) and 11/8/16 (2017), Mogul Mowgli carries the hallmarks of his nonfiction filmmaking with an intimate, realistic approach, particularly in the handheld camerawork from DP Annika Summerson. However, this drama also delves into the surreal, with Zed’s hallucinations that add even more immediacy and emotional heft to his plight. He isn’t just desperate to get well; he’s desperate to figure out who he is as both an artist and the son of immigrants — and simply as Zed. In that search, Ahmed expresses an intensity that somehow feels entirely different than the restless energy that got him an Oscar nomination for Sound of Metal. Without Amazon money behind it, Mogul Mowgli is unlikely to attract as much awards attention stateside, but this is just as assured a performance as Ahmed’s last role and further proof of the range of his talent after roles in films like Venom (2018) and Nightcrawler (2014).
Not every scene fully hits its marks, but Mogul Mowgli is never content to be a standard indie drama. Its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp, but its ambition and efforts to pack so much into a small movie are always interesting. Its best beats resonate, a feat all the more impressive when coming from a first-time fiction director and his co-writer, who proves just as adept at screenwriting as he is at acting.
“Mogul Mowgli” is out Friday in limited release.