One of the best films from TIFF 2019 (in a year alongside Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book) was Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal. It stars rising actor Riz Ahmed as a punk rock drummer whose world is thrown into disarray when he suddenly loses his ability to hear. This year, Ahmed takes on another life altering condition in Mogul Mowgli, as a London-born Pakistani rapper who suddenly loses most of his bodily function due to an auto-immune disease.
Both films coincidentally open with a kinetic and powerfully loud musical opening on a stage, but are actually complete opposites as the tying themes unravel and reveal themselves. While Sound of Metal tackles the initial loss of self identity, the recovery process, and finding hope in a hopeless situation, Mogul Mowgli is about fear of failure, family, and how insecurities manifest themselves.
Zed (Ahmed) is a mildly successful rapper, struggling to find his big break in the music industry and it’s when he finally attains his goals that we see his flaws. As rap often demands, Zed flexes with a big ego. He is selfish at times and barely acknowledges his supportive girlfriend (played by the stunning Aiysha Hart). In Sound of Metal, Ahmed’s character loses his hearing due to the trauma of a loud, pounding sound destroying his eardrums. In Mogul Mowgli, Zed’s autoimmune disease happens naturally, exposing the walls he has built up, which harden before they crumble around him.
Before his big tour, as the disease begins to rear its head, Zed is visiting his family in London for the first time in two years. He is annoyed at being challenged on his lack of faith, his family asking why he would choose to change his name from his birth name, Zephyr. His mom is proud of her son, but his father is visibly disappointed. As they pray in church together it’s clear that Zed views them with disdain. Their culture, their values, his own heritage; he resents it all and remembers why he left. Then his body suddenly fails him.
One moment, Zed is rapping to thousands, and days later he finds himself immobile, laying in a hospital bed. He endures painful rehab while leaning on help from his disapproving father just to use the toilet. He awaits news from the doctors and questions whether he will ever walk again, use his hands, or even live through the nightmare. During this tumultuous journey, we see surrealist dreams of his past; as a young child with his father, his older rap battles, and even premonitions of where he might be one day. He is reminded of what he loved, where he has come from and what has changed. Uncertain whether he will die or live to make his tour, the audience is genuinely invested in Zed finding the happiness that was missing, even in success.
Seeing the underground UK rap scene from the point of view of the stage, and Zed climbing the scaffolding or crawling on all fours, is undeniably thrilling. Ahmed gives an incredibly artful performance imitating life, being a rapper himself (Riz MC), but it’s in his risky, dynamic, chaotic portrayal of this cocky, scared, and desperately sad young man that makes Mogul Mowgli one of the year’s best films.