Zaheer “Zed” Anwar (Riz Ahmed) is a British-Pakistani rapper about to embark on a world tour that will see him reach new heights of stardom. Before it commences, he returns home to London to reconnect with his family and his heritage. However, Zed struggles to reintegrate with his relatives as his parents still don’t embrace his career choice, and friends, as well as fans, label him a sell-out and a “coconut” for betraying his race and culture. Zed’s life suddenly gets more complicated when after a scuffle, a serious illness becomes apparent (later described as a degenerative autoimmune disease) that threatens his plans.
The opening scenes of Mogul Mowgli are intriguing as they draw the audience into the life of a celebrity detached and unfamiliar with his upbringing. However, when Zed’s illness manifests itself the film becomes muddled and lacks cohesion. While in the hospital, Zed has many visions and dreams that both attempt to heighten his past struggles and present pain. Most of them are confusing, but some do work, such as a rap battle between Zed and a Black adolescent. It displays the challenges Zed has had being a Pakistani rapper in a community that is predominantly Black.
Another element of the film that comes across as perfunctory is the decision of a contained aspect ratio. It is in place throughout the entire runtime and does strengthen the physical and emotional pain Zed feels by creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, aside from these moments, its presence seems arbitrary, as is the fly-on-the-wall approach that director Bassam Tariq employs in some scenes.
Ahmed’s performance is the most consistent component of Mogul Mowgli. To begin with, Zed is not necessarily an amiable character because of his arrogant refusal to accept his illness and disregard of professional and medical advice. However, these negative aspects of his personality display how fame has gone to his head and made him forget about who he is. The audience also empathises with him through his agony and unwillingness to let go of his dream.
For some people, the biggest ambition in life is to escape the place where you grew up because there is a feeling that familiarity only hinders your future prospects. What some people forget is that one’s upbringing makes up a great part of who you are. It’s not definite that this is an intended theme of the film, and Mogul Mowgli is inconclusive with any statement it attempts to make, ultimately leaving the audience bewildered. Ahmed and Tariq’s project has a lot of heart, but the stylised sequences and creative choices designed to showcase these do not pay off.