Ashley Wu on Mogul Mowgli
November 3, 2020
Guest post by Ashley Wu, student at New York University
Imposter syndrome is real: and it is prevalent in Asian communities at an extreme degree. This rings especially true for the protagonist of Mogul Mowgli, a Pakistani rapper named Zed (Riz Ahmed) who is terrified of losing a tour spot to his rival rapper RPG after a violent confrontation triggers a degenerative muscle disorder. In Zed’s psyche, a common Asian belief is ingrained: there can only be one successful Pakistani rapper, which pits him against RPG. In a world where Asian representation is sparse, Zed’s logic is simple to understand. Through tokenism, “there can only be one,” and through that sentiment, people of color need to work twice as hard to accomplish as much as their white counterparts.
On the surface, the plot couldn’t be simpler. The hero gets sick and this sickness begins to change his hard-hearted perspective on life. However, interwoven into the narrative are dream sequences and subtle nods to the historic partition between Pakistan and India. All in all, director Bassam Tariq’s neon-lit vision is an homage to how history continues to haunt and bound us no matter how far into modernity we travel.
As Zed contemplates starting an experimental treatment for his illness, he enters a series of dream sequences that are spurred by his confusions surrounding religion and his role within a traditional family structure. These manifest in a haunting sound design; every time Zed feels out of his depth, sound designer Paul Davies creates an atmosphere where each word and note of music seems to be bouncing through an anechoic chamber. We see Zed’s disillusion through the muffled noises he hears as he witnesses Muslims kneeling on their prayer rugs. This sense of disassociation leads him outside, where he confronts a fan who feels slighted when Zed won’t take a selfie with him. After this rejection, the fan derides him for his “whiteness” while simultaneously confusing him for his rival.
His confusion surrounding his cultural identity manifests itself in one shadowy figure: a mirage of a man wearing a mask of flowers strewn over his face. The man utters one phrase again and again, “Toba Tek Singh,” an allusion to a satire written by Saadat Hasan Manto about the struggles of separation between India and Pakistan. Although Zed may not be cognizant of it, this struggle makes itself apparent in his own life. The clash between Eastern communities and Western individualism marks his internal conflict between focusing on his career and reconnecting with his family. Rather than the political tension between India and Pakistan, Zed feels torn between a new East and West: the allures of America and whiteness and the place from which his parents came.
Zed’s proximity to whiteness is prevalent in his strained relationship with his father, Bashir, played by Alyy Khan. Bashir takes a more traditional approach to life: preferring to embroil himself in the music cassette business and focusing on maintaining a healthy family. Zed berates his father for living a simpler life, neglecting the fact that he was not afforded the same opportunities as his son. Although Zed makes a career out of empowering fellow people of the diaspora, he seems to disregard these diasporic values. This is a key part of his relationship issues with his girlfriend. After he plays a successful concert in New York, she criticizes him by saying, “For someone who raps so much about where you’re from, when was the last time you went home? When was the last time you actually spent time with your family?” Through this line of dialogue, a peculiar dichotomy arises: Zed benefits from his ties to the homeland, but finds the attempts to immerse himself in Pakistani values to be fraught with tension.
Zed’s illness forces him to meld himself into the rich fabric of familial life. Bed-bound and wheelchair-bound, Zed has no choice but to confront the demons that plague him and rely on his father to do so. His physical weakness flips the script on parent-child relations. His father must bathe him, feed him and take care of him in the same way that caregivers sustain the elderly. During his time at home, an interesting B-plot is introduced; Zed’s father refuses to reconcile his memories of a violent flee from India with his present-day existence in London. In a thread that stems from the film’s beginning, Bashir’s memories of frostbitten children praying to God for survival embed themselves into their collective consciousness. The images themselves are strong and lovelorn. Although there is a bitterness imbued to the cinematography, the dust caught in sunbeams and the prayers uttered by their lips depicts the noble pursuit of a safer life.
Tariq begs us to consider the impact of our past lives on our children and grandchildren. Although immigration is touched upon in numerous Asian diasporic indie films, the tactfulness of shared bodies and shared memories lingers far beyond the actual act. The film employs a multi-tonal approach through its use of Snapchat videos, home footage and photographs. As a result, the audience feels as if they are included in this voyeuristic search for identity.
Strand by strand, Zed starts to understand the dangers of neglecting history. In one powerful surrealist sequence, he fights the angry fan again: Zed in his hospital gown, the fan in his underwear. In this moment, they are both vulnerable. They are not two conflicting energies combating one another, but two survivors of separate diasporas that led them to the same place. At the end of the sequence, they enter a rough embrace where Riz Ahmed’s diverse acting abilities really shine. The transition from animosity to intimacy perfectly encapsulates immigration in all of its triumphs and disasters.
Zed’s character arc is a familiar one to many second generation immigrants. The anguish of being torn between two countries comes with its own unique set of nuances. However, Tariq manages to craft a landscape where there is hope that the two sides of people can coexist in harmony. Near the end of the film, Zed emphatically chants the phrase “Toba Tek Singh” with his father in the bathroom of their home. By reclaiming a phrase that used to alienate him, he shows that there is faith in reconciliation after all.
Author Bio: Ashley Wu is a mysterious Asian woman. Follow her on instagram @ash.wu or Twitter @ash_wuu.