Riz Ahmed has been promoting Mogul Mowgli since long before he wrote it.
The feature film co-written by Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq began film festival premieres in 2020, released later that year in the UK, and on Sept. 3, 2021 it finally arrived in the U.S. It is a deeply intimate portrait of Ahmed's most prized passions: rap music, identity, and the intertwined tension of living as a minority in the oppressor's world.
On its surface, the film shares similarities with Sound of Metal, the role that got Ahmed nominated for an acting Academy Award in 2021. In Mogul Mowgli, he plays Zed, a Pakistani-British rapper on the cusp of a major tour when his career is derailed by debilitating disease. He's forced to go home and visit his family, reconnecting especially with his parents (Alyy Khan and Sudha Bhuchar) and parsing the struggles that made him who he is.
But unlike Sound of Metal, Mogul Mowgli is brimming with markers of Ahmed's cultural heritage and narrated by his razor-sharp voice. The film opens with Zed's incisive verses about the colonizers and the colonized, a subject Ahmed mines endlessly for his own music, which features in the film.
They ever ask you "Where you from?" Like, "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 That's where they make my jeans and that Then send them over to NYC, that's where they stack the P's and that
Skinheads meant I never really liked the British flag And I only got the shits when I went back to Pak 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
—Riz Ahmed, "Where Are You From?"
Mogul Mowgli's website allows visitors to explore the journeys of its creative team. There, Ahmed describes his hesitation to pursue film and music because so few artists looked like him. "[T]he thing that kept me going wasn’t confidence," he wrote. "It was a need to express something, to get something off my chest...a need to find out who I was really, through performing."
"For years I was too aware of the expectations and pressure of being one of a handful of brown and Muslim voices in this arena, and although this awareness is helpful because it means the work is about something bigger than just you, it also meant that I would let my own creative curiosity take a back seat to these bigger questions of 'what we need' or 'what I wished existed when I was growing up. Now I want to just explore, and hopefully if I do that freely, people will feel free when they experience the work."
As a first-time feature director, Tariq debuts a confident, compelling voice with or without the diaspora context. Despite Ahmed's lyrics, the film doesn't care to unpack Zed's identity against white friends, lovers, or even antagonists, instead keeping its conflict close to the vest. For Zed it's all tied up in his family, his faith, and his music. He carries but never quite untangles the generational trauma of Partition, which split colonial India into India, Pakistan, and what is now Bangladesh — an event that scars South Asians around the world to this day.
Though it connects to the actor's personal journey, Mogul Mowgli is less autobiographical than it is an exquisite vehicle for Ahmed's specific artistic voice. In the years since his breakout role in HBO's The Night Of, Ahmed has garnered critical acclaim and a resume that spans from Girls to Star Wars, and then some. Yet never once was he typecast or limited, and his music and identity remained vital through solo work and Swet Shop Boys. While many South Asian actors search for the perfect role, all of Ahmed's felt appropriate and vastly different. No one else was ever going to breath life into his story — he is, unequivocally, the best man for the job.
Mogul Mowgli is now playing in select theaters.