Mogul Mowgli: Film review/thought piece
As a fan of Riz Ahmed’s poetry, I was sold when I heard that Mogul Mowgli had been released as part of the BFI London Film Fest. Ahmed’s words are interweaved in this genre-bending film he has called his “most personal work yet”.
This stunning piece of cinema questions identity, heritage and the questions of who we are at our core.
Ahmed plays the role of a British-Pakistani MC ‘Zed’ on the cusp of success. He is forced to battle unexpected illness, and in turn, his own personhood. During a visit to his childhood home before a breakthrough tour, he becomes unwell. His own body betrays his plans for stardom. A degenerative auto-immune condition causes his blood cells to attack itself much like his own self-sabotaging relationship with his Pakistani roots. His infallible feeling of creative genius is halted. All the strength in his muscles wanes in a struggle to be able to walk again, so Zed realises he only has his words left to ‘stand on’.
Asides from the enjoyment of stunning visual images overlaid with a vibrant soundtrack, a well-paced plot and outstanding acting, I found the film to be incredibly relatable. It bought me to themes that have played out in my own life and perhaps all of ours.
1) OUR NEED FOR COMMUNITY AND THE IMPORTANCE OF HEALTH
This year we have been confronted with the invasive demand to slow down. It seems a lot of us have been chasing multiple priorities (a complete paradox!). However, the new normal has led us to value our health more than ever as well as acknowledging that mental health is mental wealth. Zed, a seemingly ‘able-bodied’ young man with a bright future is made to stop and rely on his loved ones in a humbling fall from grace. He adopts a child-like dependence on his father at the peak of his illness- a relationship which actually becomes the catalyst for his musical creativity.
What versions of ourselves might we find if we accepted our human-ness and came to accept that we are the sum of those we love?
As a woman of mixed heritage (Grenadian and Anglo-Indian) I am often asked the question ‘Where are you from?’ which, depending on the person asking, can sometimes feel like a loaded question. Ahmed’s song ‘Where You From’ features in the film and comments on this with such precision. In a way I feel I have been trying to articulate my whole life:
The question seems simple but the answer’s kinda long
I could tell them Wembley but I don’t think that’s what they want
But I don’t want to tell them more because anything I say is wrong
Britain’s where I’m born and I love a cup of tea and that
But tea ain’t from Britain
It’s from where my DNA is at
And where my genes are from?
That’s where they make my jeans and that.
What are the markers of my identity? Is it in things like the Indian lullaby Nini Baba Nini my father sung to me as a child? The smell of fresh bakes, plantain and Saltfish my mother makes at Easter? Or is it the way I can trace my local London streets on the palms of my melanin-pigmented hand?
The answer is all of these and none at the same time. I’m my culture, but not only that. This sentiment is shown beautifully in the film as characters decide to unapologetically live their truths. Zed marries the various archetypes of his identity that are at war with each other echoing the analogy of a romantic relationship found in Ahmed’s new album ‘The Long Goodbye’.
In a year where we have all been told to ‘Stay Home’ this film highlights the sense of liminality second-generations can feel about belonging. It also celebrates the fact that it isn’t always a ‘struggle’. It’s can be a funny, lively and exuberant song with each generation passing the microphone on verse by verse (something my poem on UNITY touches on in response to Black Lives Matter).
3) GENERATIONAL HOPE
What are we without our children?
…are the words of Zed’s Father in the film. A beautiful but heavy statement that carries the weight of sacrifice, hopes and implicit expectations. Zed battles with his Dad throughout the film as the daunting reflection and example of manhood that challenges his masculinity.
In one of the most powerful scenes, Zed is told there is a possibility he may be unable to have children due to his illness. In an attempt to save the hopes for 'a future generation', the family turn to religion. Prayers are spoken and alternative medicines are tried, but ultimately Zed relinquishes any hope of having children and re-focuses his energy on ‘pro-creating’ music.
Interestingly, those that enter religious life across different world religions are often celibate, and in replace of a biological family, mentor wider communities.
The final scene (when I may or may not have shed a tear), shows the Zed and his father listening to a song that has been handed on to the next generation. Three generations: father, son and the next mentee.
Zed toys with an age-old dilemma for creatives: if I share my work with the world it puts a spotlight on me and then I'm vulnerable to critics, but if I hide my work, I denounce the thing that makes me fully ‘me’. This reminded of a poem 'Our Deepest Fear' that I came across as a teen which is often quoted in speeches: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate...Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking…”
The times Zed is most enlightened by his creativity is when he or others are asleep. Words are his only muscle left and gives him the strengths to say words to loved ones he can't say in the light of day. The link between dream-like states and creativity is one I've reflected on before and was reminded by with this film.
My words are just my personal experience of the film, but in order to have it envelop you in a unique way, I would recommend going to see it yourself. It’s a nice selection if you want a last hurrah of cinema before lockdown restrictions commence later this week. Of course, please ensure that regulations are followed. The Curzon did a brilliant job in ensuring that the screening was well social distanced and made it compulsory for everyone to wear masks.
Check out the trailer below:
This review is part of my ‘Screen Queen’ series. For the month of November I will be doing series of 'Screen Queen' recommendations: Films, shows, online events or digital exhibitions that inspire us to use screens only for the most enjoyable, inspiring and nourishing things instead of mindless scrolling. A bid to balance wellness, creativity and social issues the best we can with the screens in front of us, seeing as 'in real life' is on pause right now!
Thanks for visiting the Riah Writes creative writing blog. Riah is a creative writing blogger/poetry blogger interested in wellness, society, social justice rights issues and the Arts. Follow the blog and on Instagram to stay updated on new content.