Mogul Mowgli jumps into debates about authenticity and cultural appropriation – often conducted by people with no skin in the game on behalf of people who do – and does a decent job of trying to make itself heard above the din of the culture war. It does it by focusing on the particular rather than the general in a story about a rapper who gets sick and ends up in hospital, where, stripped of what he thinks of as his identity, he starts to wonder who he is. His family, meanwhile, gather about and try (in authenticity/appropriation style) to impose their idea of who he is on him.
Riz Ahmed plays rapper Zed, a man from a Muslim family on the edge of making it big – hot girlfriend, fans, a big tour in the offing – who has to put it all on hold when he’s struck down by an auto-immune disease that causes him, literally, to become less than the person he was. He’s wasting away.
It’s a good metaphor but would also be a clunking one if Ahmed, who also co-wrote the script with director Bassam Tariq, didn’t finesse it with detail that springs from lived experience. Zed’s family are Muslims, but some are more devout than others, and Zed’s mother and aunties seem more superstitious than religious, with much talk of the “evil eye” to explain Zed’s condition.
By the same token Zed is reliant on “Western” medicine, but isn’t beyond accepting an intervention by an “ethnic” doctor – hey, whatever works, if it works.
Rapper, son, brother, patient, Zed is a slightly different person depending on his situation. A cafeteria identity. For essentialists, Zed is a British Pakistani, and identifies as such, but that isn’t the whole story – his family actually came from India originally, and Pakistan was where they fled when being a Muslim in the largely Hindu India became a problem. So even his “real”, stated ethnicity is a bit of a fix.
In real life Riz Ahmed is also a rapper, his family is British Pakistani and they did, in fact, migrate out of India to Pakistan before arriving in the UK, so when Ahmed was doing the PR rounds with this film and describing it as the most personal thing he’d done, he probably wasn’t lying.
The overlap comes in handy when it comes to the performance scenes in flashback, when Zed gives crowd-pleasing raps about the question of identity and the immigrant experience.
It does all sound a bit worthy, doesn’t it – ethnicity, authenticity, the cultural cafeteria and the immigrant experience etc etc. Thankfully there is also humour, largely in the shape of the not un-Ali G alike rapper RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), whose Pussy Fried Chicken number is both plausible and yet comically terrible. And on top of that there is the sideways shift into a magical realism reflecting Zed’s periodic out-of-body experiences caused by his illness, the drugs he’s on or emotional stress. Or all three.
And the switches of tone come rapidly – one second we’re at a gig, the next we’re at the hospital bedside, then suddenly there’s a weird fantasy creature gibbering in the corner, complete with orange and red wig obscuring his face. All handled with virtuosic skill by director Bassam Tariq in his feature debut (more work surely to follow).
But that’s no less drastic than the self-reliant swaggering rapper – the epitome of masculinity in his own eyes at least – suddenly reduced to dependent scared sick man in a hospital bed.
Chalk up another big success to Ahmed, who was one of so many brilliant elements in the TV series The Night Of (which the recent The Undoing so wanted to emulate but didn’t), and is now in pre-production for Hamlet, an updating of Shakespeare that could go all kinds of wrong in the wrong hands.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020