Slowly but surely, Riz Ahmed has become one of the most interesting British actors of his generation. In the decade since his stellar lead performance in ace suicide-bomber comedy Four Lions, he’s racked up memorable roles in everything from LA media satire Nightcrawler to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and underrated western The Sisters Brothers, while even landing a key role in quality US TV crime procedural The Night Of. This time out, he might have delivered his best work yet.
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In Mogul Mowgli, which he produced and co-wrote with American director Bassam Tariq, Ahmed plays Zed, a fierce, politicised rapper who’s on the cusp of a major tour that will catapult him to mega-stardom. After a row in which his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart, Colette, Line of Duty) dumps him, he returns to London for a family visit only to end up in hospital after an alleyway altercation with a “fan”. Unfortunately, hospital checks find Zed has an autoimmune disease and will have to forsake the tour to spend a long time recovering. His gradual convalescence is helped and hindered by a range of influences, real and imagined. Ridiculous rival rapper RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan, 1917) takes his slot on the tour, conservative father Bashir (Alyy Khan) disproves of his rapper lifestyle but supports him, all the while a mysterious figure from Sufi mysticism garbed in flowers haunts his dreams.
The average modern British-Asian experience is not often portrayed in mainstream film. While Gurinder Chadha’s entertaining Blinded by the Light had Bruce Springsteen anthems to appeal to a wide audience last year, it was a period piece set in the 1980s. Otherwise, one has to go back to 2002 for Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham for a big-screen commercial hit. With luck, Mogul Mowgli will go some way to address this. There is real warmth and authenticity to the banter between Zed and his family. It’s often fast and funny, whether delivered in Urdu or English. Much of this undoubtedly derives from Wembley-born Ahmed’s own experiences – and it shows in a personal, believable film (his rapping scenes are great too, unsurprisingly given Ahmed’s other career as an MC).
That’s not to say it’s a pure LOLfest. In the hospital scenes, one feels for Zed as he goes through the indignity and boredom of a debilitating illness. Ahmed offers a skilful portrayal and we’re often rolling our eyes or sighing along with him. For his part, Tariq keeps the on-screen action interesting with hectic rap scenes and tense, unusual dream sequences, aside from the medical agonies and domestic wind-ups.
Ahmed is a versatile and talented performer but has maybe now found his niche. He played a drummer losing his hearing in Sound of Metal and has smashed it as a hospitalised rapper in Mogul Mowgli. If his performances and the films he appears in remain this good, he’s welcome to keep on combining music and misery.
- Director: Bassam Tariq
- Starring: Riz Ahmed, Aiysha Hart, Nabhaan Rizwan
- Release date: TBC