Berlinale 2020: Riz Ahmed Raps & Reflects on Life in 'Mogul Mowgli'
by Alex Billington
February 24, 2020
This film is one of the finest discoveries at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. Mogul Mowgli is an outstanding gem of a film, made authentically by genuine artists giving it their all. It's a remarkable relief to come across a film so surprising yet so entirely refreshing and engaging, that's an unforgettable experience to watch, and I can't help but rave about it when this happens. Mogul Mowgli is one of my favorite surprises at Berlinale this year. A few of my colleagues mentioned it as a film on their schedule and I looked it up, saw that it stars Riz Ahmed as a rapper, and decided to give it a look. I have high hopes that the film will find an audience outside of the film festival circuit, and connect with many people. It doesn't matter where you come from or what religion you follow, this film is about an artist wanting it all struggling with the painful realities of life.
Mogul Mowgli is about a talented British Pakistani rapper named Zed, about to break out big after a string of sold out concerts, who is struck by an illness when he goes back home to visit his family. Riz Ahmed, who has dabbled in rap before, stars as Zed in a seriously unforgettable performance that shows just how capable and skillful he is. It's tough to watch him struggle with being sick, he rejects it and tries to ignore it but he is hit with an autoimmune disease that completely debilitates him. Everything he was working towards comes to a halt. This time at home and in the hospital makes him contemplate life and his own background, forcing him to confront his roots despite a desire to move on. The film is the first feature by a Pakistani-American filmmaker named Bassam Tariq, and working with Riz, together they've created a film that is remarkable.
Yes, as expected, the rap performances Zed gives are exhilarating (and not just at a concert). The lyrics are legitimately brilliant combined with jaw-dropping perfect delivery. Clearly Riz Ahmed has done this before, he seems like a natural, and while there's only a handful of these rap moments - they're the best scenes in the film. It's not easy to write lyrics this impactful, and make them sound authentic, but they took the time to craft these songs and include them because they are so important to the film. They speak the most about racism and life as a Pakistani boy in England and how to overcome intolerance and oppression. And there's another amazing scene where Zed's multiple brothers and sisters crack jokes and delivery witty replies to criticisms flung at each other. Not only is it authentic, but scenes like this are rarely this perfect in any film.
I can only reiterate that this film impressed the hell out of me – the filmmaking, the honesty, the levity, the power of it, along with Riz Ahmed's performance. It's a very sincere and introspective film, somber and sad at times, but with an edge to it that is immensely inspiring. Any and every artist can connect with Zed and his desire to succeed, to finally land where he wants to be without sacrificing your integrity to get there. And that's one of the most poignant parts about Mogul Mowgli – learning to overcome the challenges that you yourself present. They're often the greatest roadblocks in life. And in this case, it is a story about a disease that can help teach us, because it forces Zed to go back home and confront himself and understand himself in order to truly become himself. I highly recommend catching this film as soon as it's showing in a cinema.