There are many themes explored in Mogul Mowgli—from the journey to find your identity and truth, to inherited trauma, to what home and spirituality mean, to embracing your heritage and building your legacy. Riz Ahmed produced and co-wrote the script with his friend Bassam Tariq, a documentary filmmaker who grew up in Queens, New York. The script is a blend of their family experiences and different personality traits. It is a deeply personal project for both, and their approach is completely unapologetic and real.
Mogul Mowgli won the FIPRESCI prize at Berlin Film Festival followed by an unluckily timed UK premiere in February 2020. In the US it was shown more recently—this June—as a part of the BAMcinemaFest lineup and will have a full theatrical release this September.
In Sound of Metal, Darius Marder’s excellent Oscar-winning film about a metal drummer who loses his hearing, Riz Ahmed delivered one of the most compelling performances of the last several years. The rawness and intensity of his acting stand out. But equally impressive was his dedication; he spent seven months studying American Sign Language and learning to play the drums for the role.
Mogul Mowgli demanded a different kind of involvement from Riz Ahmed. One that required full commitment, unfiltered honesty, and a relentless search for truth.
Ahmed plays Zed, a talented and ambitious British-Pakistani rapper who seems to be on the verge of gaining wide recognition. His life in New York revolves around this goal, to the point where everything else is secondary, including spending quality time with his girlfriend.
The film opens with Zed taking the stage by storm in New York in front of a few hundred people with the song “Where You From?” Ahmed wrote the bold, charged lyrics:
‘Where you really from?’
The question seems simple but the answer’s kinda long
I could tell ’em Wembley but I don’t think that’s what they want
But I don’t wanna tell ’em more ’cause 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
And my ancestors’ Indian but India was not for us
My people built the West, we even gave the skinheads swastikas
Now everybody everywhere want their country back
If you want me back to where I’m from then bruv I need a map
Or if everyone just gets their shit back then that’s bless for us
You only built a piece of this place bruv, the rest was us
The rest of the song continues to address Zed’s heritage, delving into more prejudices and nonsensical stereotypes of the Muslim community as well as the attacks and labels faced by the Pakistani and Indian communities in the UK.
Shortly after the concert, Zed is offered the opportunity to tour Europe as an opening act. It is the opportunity he has been waiting for. Despite this big break, Zed’s insecurities become evident as his girlfriend Bina chats with RPG, a popular but younger South-Asian rapper.
Later that night, Bina accuses Zed of hypocrisy; underlining that while his lyrics talk about his roots and experiences in the UK, he rarely tries to see his family in London. With one week left until the start of his European tour, Zed decides to visit his parents. He has not seen them in two years.
Soon after his arrival in London, everything crumbles; Zed’s health rapidly deteriorates, and a mysterious autoimmune illness invades his body. The only people who can take care of Zed while he is lying in a hospital bed are his parents, who are frequently at odds with each other. They take different approaches to his recovery: his mother is burning peppers with a lighter and making circles in the air—attempting to stir away the “evil eye”—while his father bets his son’s recovery on cupping therapy. It is a strange situation, as most of Zed’s adult life has been spent running away from his parents.
In the end, there are no definitive explanations for Zed’s condition, but we discover that it is genetic. His dad, Bashir, says in passing that he has stiff legs too, and once he felt he could not move.
There is a theory that traumatic experiences change a person’s DNA, and that children inherit their parents’ trauma. Riz Ahmed has mentioned in interviews that the book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 bestseller about psychological trauma, was a major point of reference for Mogul Mowgli.
Throughout the film, an image keeps repeating in Zed’s mind; haunting him while he is at home with his parents, in the car, and during his hospital stay. It takes place inside a train, at night. People are lying close to each other, completely still, and dust particles are floating in the air. Some are wounded, others already dead, and one frightened boy is hiding in a corner.
We witness variations of this scene throughout the film; it seems like a nightmare that keeps repeating. It shows us the trauma experienced by Bashir, Zed’s father, during the Partition of India in 1947. That year, what was then British India was divided in just a month into two parts—India for the Hindu population and Pakistan for the Muslim population. Extreme acts of violence followed, 20 million people were displaced, and an estimated two million people died.
All his life, Bashir avoided talking about his traumatic experience with his son. This, in part, prevented Zed from coming to terms with his own heritage. In one powerful dream sequence, we see Bashir wearing layers and layers of clothes representing the many jobs he had and then falling on the ground in a fetal position, defeated and tired. The image symbolizes his life as an immigrant in London—full of sacrifices and constant worries while being subjected to abuse and various forms of aggression.
In another surreal scene, the shelves of the supermarket where Zed’s mum is still working, as well as the table in their home, start shaking as if there is an earthquake. All of those unaddressed emotions and traumas cannot be contained anymore.
For Ahmed, Zed’s journey is ultimately about “finding a way forward…what if forwards mean a step closer to your family and yourself? A step into your past?” Riz Ahmed explained his process in a BAFTA interview, adding that “you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’re coming from. For minorities, diaspora and immigrants it is harder to find a response. A lot of times you do not know where you are coming from because the history has been hidden from you by other people, or even your own family. So, there is a lot to unravel.”
Mogul Mowgli has several elements of magical realism. For instance, a strange ghost sometimes appears with a sehra (traditional groom’s headdress) covering his face. The ghost is called Toba Tek Singh, a mythical creature inspired by a short story with the same title, written by Saadat Hasan Manto and published in 1955. He symbolizes the rupture that took place in 1947, the sickness from the separation of East and West.
We see the ghost on the cover of an old cassette labeled Partition. Songs of Trauma haunting Zed in a mosque, in memories that turn into chaotic scenes inside Bashir’s restaurant, and then several times at the hospital. Each time his presence gets more and more threatening and strange.
Is it unresolved generational trauma that chases Zed as mythical creature Toba Tek Singh? He is not free unless he is facing and accepting the past instead of running away. In Mogul Mowgli there’s a verse “I tried to stand up but my blood won’t let me stand up”. Through these words, Ahmed expressed Zed’s core struggle. His own white blood cells are attacking his body as he needs to make peace with his family and his inherited trauma.
Stuck in a hospital, Zed is not able to walk or hide behind his music, therefore he is forced to confront his past, understand his heritage, and connect with his inner child and true self. People’s response to trauma is often a lesson in survival, resilience, and creativity. Ahmed portrays inherited trauma as a curse and a gift.
Bassam Tariq was inspired by the Sufi belief that says: “when you are ill, your heart is being purified and then all these veils are lifted from your heart”. Tariq has discussed wanting to reflect that healing process during Zed’s hospital stay.
A turning point in Zed’s healing comes when he is asked to give his new song “Toba Tek Singh” to RPG, the rapper who has taken his place on the European tour. All the disdain he feels towards RPG, mixed with the fear that somebody younger is stealing his moment, is challenged when Vaseem, his manager, reminds him: “He’s one of us.” In other words, why focus so much on what separates you from somebody as opposed to what ties you together? Better to share the stage than swallowing the mic.
While talking about the writing process with Tariq, Ahmed confessed that he was reluctant at first to make the main character a rapper because it was too close to reality. Riz Ahmed has been rapping under the name Riz MC, and with the Swet Shop Boys, for more than 15 years. In 2017 the group was invited to perform at Primavera Sound Barcelona, one of the biggest music festivals in Europe. Riz MC is also one of the artists featured on the song, and in the viral video for, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” from Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Hamilton Mixtape.
In 2020, Riz Ahmed released the album The Long Goodbye, which was accompanied by a short film of the same title. In a statement, Riz described the record as “a breakup album—but with your country. So many of us feel like we are being dumped by the place we call home, a home that we built. This album takes you on the journey of this breakup; through the stages of denial, anger, acceptance, and finally, self-love to counter the hate.”
With Mogul Mogli, Ahmed and Tariq worked together to create an honest, radical narrative that embraces poetry, rap and spoken word, history, stories within stories, and symbolic hallucinations. It is a rich tapestry with many layers, and watching the film is an inspiring, emotional, and transformative experience that I can’t recommend enough.
Once Kings-from “Mogul Mowgli”
In June, Ahmed used his voice to bring attention to Muslim misrepresentation in film and the results of a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.