Mogul Mowgli: Double Lives, by David Bax
Mogul Mowgli, Bassam Tariq’s first feature length film since his stunning, thrilling 2012 debut These Birds Walk, has dialogue both in English and Urdu. But the British Pakistani characters overlap and blend the two so inextricably that–at least on the screener I watched–the decision was made to go ahead and subtitle pretty much everything in English. The mixing of the languages speaks to the film’s concerns about identity but also to the movie’s overall sense of tumult.
As Zed (Riz Ahmed) becomes more and more infirm–stricken with the sudden onset of a degenerative muscle disorder right before he was meant to embark on a life-changing tour–his present begins to collide with various facets of his past. A memory of working in his father’s restaurant blends with a memory of the earliest days of his rap career until riled up audience members are literally jumping on tables, keeping families from their modest meals. Zed’s mind is an increasingly chaotic place, brought on by a panicked denial at what’s happening to his body, but, in Tariq’s hands, there’s a fluidity to that chaos. As with These Birds Walk, his razor’s edge control is astounding.
Mogul Mowgli is fluid in more ways than one. We return time and again to shots of floating particles seemingly suspended in midair that look like they were filmed underwater. There’s a surrealism to these images and to the way they are stitched, stream of consciousness-like, to the events of the narrative.
“Wait a minute,” you probably said to yourself two paragraphs back. “A musician suddenly sidelined by a debilitating physical development? Didn’t Ahmed just make this movie?” Yes, it’s impossible not to think of Sound of Metal while watching Mogul Mowgli. But the two films differ in more ways than the surrealist bent already described. The questions about identity and belonging and the specificity of Ahmed himself also being British Pakistani make it seem more personal. That’s reflected in his performance, which is somehow even more vulnerable than the one in Sound of Metal (a movie I happen to like very much). Ahmed has been young, fit and attractive since I first remembering seeing him over a decade ago in the British zombie miniseries Dead Set. Mogul Mowgli is the first film to acknowledge that he is getting older. Tariq incorporates actual childhood footage of Ahmed, which makes the passage of time evident. But starker still is how much of the film’s second half he spends enfeebled. Tariq even shows us Ahmed’s developing bald spot.
Mogul Mowgli is in the old-fashioned 1.33:1 aspect ratio, an admittedly en vogue move that I nevertheless find myself enjoying more often than not. Here, it seems delightfully at odds with Tariq’s decidedly non-stodgy direction. And it reflects Zed’s increasingly boxed-in state of being.
What’s causing Zed’s condition is described to him by a doctor as his body attacking itself. It’s not the most subtle metaphor for his dual identities as a Brit and a Pakistani, identities that he has (possibly needlessly) set at war within himself. Mogul Mowgli is sometimes exciting, sometimes funny, sometime sad. But it’s at its most touching when it acknowledges that, no matter how much Zed sees himself as the outsider in his family, the psychological pain he’s enduring is not unique to his situation or to his generation.