THE CENTRE CANNOT hold when things begin to fall apart. This is what lapsed Muslim slam poet ‘Zed’ (Riz Ahmed) discovers on the cusp of the realisation of his international stardom. And thus unfolds a complex yarn of demons and angels, illness-induced fantasies and historical ghosts wrapped in a contemporary British world coloured by colonialist bias and religious ritual. Under the direction of Bassam Tariq, Mogul Mowgli features on this year’s European Film Festival in South Africa. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the entire festival is available online and most of it without cost from 12-22 November.
Enfolded in the security of popularity in a world of strobes and shrieking fans, Zed, whose name is really Zaheer, has digressed markedly and brazenly from his roots. Some sharp lines from his girlfriend and agent focus him towards his hardworking parents and history. Interjected with potent face offs between politically articulate slam poets and the mysterious presence of a fat man with flowers on his face, the dizzying whirligig of life at home for Zed throbs with the values of his traditionalist parents and his own dreams.
But when he gets there, contravening Fast protocol and slipping up in his mosque-based gestures, he discovers both more and less than he could have anticipated. With parents who hold their superstitions close to the surface, and a copy cat rival who diminishes the soul of his work, but who is ready to leap into his shoes at any opportunity, Zed feels doomed. And his relationship with his own body echoes this feeling.
It’s a curious work, which features several achingly well developed scenes that plunge the central protagonist into such powerful vulnerability that you will feel broken with complicity, just by watching it. On the whole, however, this heroic tale is thwarted by red herrings in its cross-hatching of values and mysteries and a sense of closure that lacks definition. The metaphors that illness present remain unexplored. On a level, the film recalls South African horror movie Tokoloshe directed by Jerome Pikwane in 2018, which posits many horrors and fantastic narrative possibilities but doesn’t resolve itself with a reveal to take home with you.
Beautiful enigmas and intelligent, angry slam poetry are set up in this film but the the mysteries are allowed to remain mysteries. While this is the artistic decision of the professionals who made the work, these conundrums with all their potential metaphors and lessons are left dangling. They swirl with considerable potency but never reach a fruition that becomes satisfying.
- Mogul Mowgli is directed by Bassam Tariq and features a cast headed by Riz Ahmed, Sam Alexander, Ali Barouti, Tim Bartholomew, Sudha Bhuchar, Olivia Brady, Jill Buchanan, Asim Chaudhury, Ali Gadema, Aiysha Hart, Andrea Hart, Afraz Hussain, Dolly Jagdeo, Ahmed Jamal, Taj Kandula, Alyy Khan, Shaheen Khan, Hussain Manawer, Faisal Mian, Jeff Mirza, Nabhaan Rizwan, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Abu-Hurairah Sohail, Mitesh Soni, Christopher Tajah, Khariis Ubiaro and Anjana Vasan. Written by Riz Ahmed and Bassam Tariq, , it is produced by Riz Ahmed, Thomas Benski, Bennett McGhee and Michael Peay and features creative input by Paul Corley (music), Annika Summerson (cinematography), Hazel Baillie and Adam Biskupski (editing), Francesca Massariol (production design) and Grace Snell (costumes). In English and Urdu with English subtitles, it is part of the 7th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 12-22 November 2020.