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LFF 2020 Review: Mogul Mowgli – “A brilliant story of generational trauma”

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Riz Ahmed has been a constant presence on our screens since his breakthrough role in Four Lions, going on to star in recent Hollywood blockbusters like Rogue One and Venom, however in Mogul Mowgli he takes centre stage as Zaheer, and it is an up-close and intimate stage. Directed by Bassam Tariq, the film is presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which ties in with old family videos of Riz Ahmed’s childhood but also pulls the camera in closer to the actors and adds of intimacy another layer to the film.

Centred on Zaheer (stage name Zed) and his rise through the rap scene, he is set to go on tour and returns home to his family in London before starting. Returning home after two years promoting his music in the USA, there’s a clash between him and his parents, not just of age or generation but history too. In his old room, he picks through old junk and finds old music tapes he recorded as a youngster over his parents old Qawwali music tapes. An early attempt to write over his parent’s history. The spectre of partition haunts the film, at first with scenes of a derelict house covered in dust but then by an apparition of a masked man. Zaheer clashes up against family and friends, coming to a head when he’s recognised in an alleyway only to be mistaken for a rival rapper RPG.

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Interspersed with Riz Ahmed’s songs from his album The Long Goodbye, the rich themes of his lyrics are juxtaposed against RPG and his crass and non-sensical lyrics. Rap plays a large part in this film, where the rhymes aren’t just in the lyrics but in themes of trauma reverberating through generations. Zaheer’s father is the other side of his generation, keeping silent about the past whereas Zaheer is more than ready to bear his soul on stage.

The generational clash forms the heart of this story. Zaheer is desperate to go on tour, but weeks before he can he collapses and wakes in a hospital with a degenerative disease. “Your body is at war with itself,” his doctor says, both figuratively and literally. Zaheer and his father Bashir (Alyy Khan) struggle to communicate, their silence is deafening and the film creeps along, revealing layers to Zaheer and the audience. Alyy Khan is fabulous and there is a quiet strength below the surface of his performance. As the layers stack, the father and son story grows until you’re sucker-punched by the relationship.

Mogul Mowgli is an assassin of a film, quietly assembling the pieces across generations, styles, culture and music until it strikes with emotional precision. As a first-generation immigrant there’s so much I can see in Mogul Mowgli reflected back to me and others I know with Zaheer’s heritage, but that doesn’t make it inaccessible. Riz Ahmed and Bassam Tariq have brought to life a brilliant story of generational trauma but also love in a way that works for these unique characters and I hope you see it.

Mogul Mowgli has a public screening at the BFI London Film Festival on 10th October.

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