I’m late with my blog this week because I wanted to catch the BFI’s online screening of Mogul Mowgli (2020), written by Riz Ahmed and Bassam Tariq . Man, what a trip!
Zed (Riz Ahmed) is a British Pakistani rapper about to have his moment when he suddenly experiences a dilapidating illness. Ahmed and Tariq have written a haunting dissection of the “mongrelised diasporic experience”, as Ahmed put it in the BFI London Film Festival 2020 Q&A, with the drama playing out like a poetic nightmare.
The film is warm and humorous in places but quick to turn dark, horrific and blunt in an instance, paralleling the chaotic circumstances Zed finds himself in when on the cusp of bigger things. Exploring trauma, the generational gap and heritage, Mogul Mowgli is soundtracked to songs heard in Riz Ahmed’s magnificent The Long Goodbye as well as some damn fine qawwali music.
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 just 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 wantin' their country back
Excerpt from Where You From, by Riz Ahmed
Mogul Mowgli also resonated with me personally because through it, and as I grow older, I’m starting to see the lineage of my generation being placed within the British South Asian journey. We aren’t the first or second generation to come to Britain - our grandparents or parents - we’re the ones born here. Walking a line between trying to understand where we came from and seeking to make a piece of Britain our own. We’re the 80s coconuts and Bounties, labelled as such by our own elders, brown on the outside white on the inside. Amidst the confusion of heritage, we were expected to adhere to the ideologies of our parents' own motherland upbringings whilst we spent the rest of our time socialising and integrating into a western society.
Through Nabhaan Rizwan’s young rapper, RPG's, admiration for Zed, Ahmed and Tariq have also delved into a more subtle conversation around the upbringings of generation Y and generation Z. If you were to meet Zed (Y) and RPG (Z) together I would argue you simply see two adult South Asian men, however there is a difference in the Britain of my youth (Y) and those a decade younger (Z). The 90s saw a Britain starting to acknowledge its multiculturalism and pre-9/11, South Asian "coolness" was permeating pop culture albeit when we were in vogue. There is a great significance to Konnie Huq presenting Blue Peter, Cornershop appearing on Top Of The Pops, Goodness Gracious Me being on the tele, boxer Prince Naseem's supreme confident swagger in the sport news and East is East (1999) coming out in cinemas, all being celebrated by the mainstream. These were moments where we were being “seen”. For 80s kids we sought to make something our own, our representation was watching Sanjay and Gita on EastEnders or finding out that the bloke in Short Circuit (1986) - Fisher Stevens - wasn’t actually South Asian at all. For 90s kids seeing South Asian's on screen suddenly becomes a norm, becomes empowering, even more so when you haven't had to wait years for its arrival. This small gap between Y and Z may seem insignificant but within that margin is the duality generation Y were expected to get on with experiencing, almost independently from our parents, and the one generation Z arrived too in a more informed capacity.
What Ahmed and Tariq have crafted is an abstract dissection of diaspora derived from partition, punctuated by hallucinations of fantasy and memory which are only made worse as Zed is forced to confront his new reality. I think the relationship between Zed and his father, played by Alyy Khan, is utterly beautiful and there’s a rawness to making him so dedicated, loving and fallible. Mogul Mowgli has the surrealism of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, the unnerving horror of Matthew Holness's Possum (2018) and even nods to F. Gary Gray's Friday (1995).
I simply want as many people to watch it as possible.