The canned British character study “Mogul Mowgli” disappoints on a few levels, especially given its admirable focus on authenticity and cultural identity in a kitchen-sink drama about Zed (Riz Ahmed), an aspiring British Pakistani rapper.
Zed’s musical career takes a sharp detour after he’s diagnosed with a muscle-related autoimmune disease, leaving him to wonder what motivates him and how he sees himself. Ahmed, who co-wrote the movie with director Bassam Tariq (“These Birds Walk”), struggles to provide emotional balance to his symbolically freighted role, but even he can’t enhance such thin material.
For starters: Zed’s physical deterioration reflects only his creators’ lack of vision. At one point, a neurologist tells Zed that “Your body can’t recognize itself, so it’s attacking itself.” And as if that wasn’t sufficiently on the nose, the neurologist also suggests the Zed’s condition is probably hereditary, which leads to some embarrassment and tension between Zed and his uptight dad Bashir (Alyy Khan, “A Mighty Heart”).
Tariq consequently presents Zed’s ostensibly personal story in a pseudo-impressionistic style, characterized by bland dream sequences and distracting hand-held photography. So “Mogul Mowgli” often looks as dismal as its tired central metaphors.
You can tell a lot about Zed based on a ghost-like wraith (Jeff Mirza, “We Are Lady Parts”) that haunts Zed throughout “Mogul Mowgli.” Mirza’s facial features are hidden behind a traditional sehra head-dress, often worn by the groom during Pakistani wedding ceremonies. Whenever Mirza’s unnamed character shows up, Zed murmurs something about “Toba Tek Singh”, a Pakistani city and also the title of Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1955 short story about the Indian-Pakistani cultural divide.
Zed is terrified by Toba Tek Singh, and often sees Mirza during moments of great physical and spiritual weakness: when he’s struggling with physical therapy, when he’s ferried around the hospital in a wheelchair, and when he’s praying in a mosque. Mirza’s presence often drags the movie into flights of literal-minded fantasy, all (visually) dark, and none more deep or meaningful than when Zed’s aunt succinctly diagnoses him: “There’s a very strong evil eye on him.”
Most of “Mogul Mowgli” concerns Zed’s frustrated need to express himself on stage, albeit through flat-footed bars like, “Don’t make me smash your melon up, tried throwing the shade on melanin/bona fide though, I’m Seven-Up, you’re too sweet, I put the lemon in.”
Unfortunately, Ahmed’s credibly furious performance can only do so much to perk up dismal scenes like a dream sequence where Zed, dreaming of a rap battle, must defend himself from a hostile crowd after an improvised line about his opponent’s “skin pigment” backfires. “That’s not what I’m saying!” he cries, but they don’t buy it, and his opponent has just told Zed to “blame your dad for your erectile dysfunction.” That line earns responsive “ooh”s from the off-camera audience, presumably because Zed’s one hope for Westernized medical treatment is an experimental therapy that might leave him sterilized. Don’t you hate it when your stress dreams only reveal your basic nature?
Zed’s interpersonal relationships aren’t much more revealing either. He’s jealous of RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan, “The Last Letter from Your Lover”), a younger rapper who sings about “pussy fried chicken” and babbles like Ali G when he tries to pay tribute to Zed, one of his averred role models: because “there’s no Nelson Mandela without apartheid.” (OK, that line’s pretty funny.) Zed also can’t get over Bina (Aiysha Hart, “Colette”), who’s introduced to us as Zed’s girlfriend; her establishing dialogue with Zed suggests she won’t be for long.
As with his awkward exchanges with Bashir, Zed clings to Bina too much. He needs her approval, and that leads to an especially ugly scene where he asks her if she can help him get off at a sperm-donor clinic, and also if she wants his sperm, once it’s been extracted. Her response is never really in question, only her tone.
Zed may not be in his right mind, but his recurring thoughts are just as ungenerous as his lapses in judgment. Take, for example, the sperm donor scene, which provides viewers merely with another opportunity to pity Zed. This scene ends only after an uncaring white nurse tells Zed that there’s no Vaseline available, can he just use his foreskin, oh, woops, sorry, forgot about the whole Muslim thing, maybe try saliva? Zed spits in a cup and mewls “I’m finished.” Half of Ahmed’s face gets cut off by an extreme close-up that presumably reveals his character’s divided self. Poor kid; poor us.
Tariq’s direction sometimes laps his and Ahmed’s scenario, as in a surprisingly dynamic early scene where a misguided fan confronts Zed in an alleyway. This confrontation frequently earns groans because of toothless lines like, “This is the problem with you Pakis: Get a bit of fame and you turn into coconuts.” But Tariq’s focus and genuine interest in his two actors comes across in the scene’s real-time style pregnant pauses and general focus on the two actors’ awkward body language. “Mogul Mowgli” never really improves, but if you watch it on mute, it might occasionally resemble a drama that’s worthy of Ahmed’s talent.
“Mogul Mowgli” opens in US theaters September 3.