Sound of Metal comparisons are inevitable with Mogul Mowgli—perhaps to the latter film's detriment. In both, British actor Riz Ahmed plays a strong-willed musician. In both, the characters experience a new health condition that swiftly changes their lives. In both, they must contend with a new reality and find new ways to survive.
While Sound of Metal is rooted in Ahmed's character's struggle with addiction, Mogul Mowgli pulls from Ahmed's experience of being a Pakistani Muslim raised in the United Kingdom. And though this project is obviously so personal for Ahmed (he co-wrote the film), it lacks the clarity of emotion presented in the other, very similar film. But that's not to say that Mogul Mowgli isn't an interesting exploration of identity, assimilation, and inherited trauma. Because it is. AND you get to hear the now Oscar-nominated Ahmed spit rhymes throughout the film, which is worth the price of admission.
Bassam Tariq's narrative feature debut stars Ahmed as Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper on the cusp of stardom living in New York. Zed decides to spend some time with his semi-estranged family in London just before a possibly career-defining world tour kicks off. After a strange fan interaction, Zed starts experiencing leg pains that end up immobilizing him. He learns he's developed a rapidly degenerative autoimmune disease that threatens his dreams for his future, unable to walk or care for himself without assistance.
Trapped in the hospital and tended to by his conservative father Bashir (the legendary Alyy Khan), Mogul Mowgli tries to square Zed's cultural heritage with how he's formed himself in a society that constantly antagonizes his identity. In some places, the struggle is visualized really well, like whenever Zed expresses himself through rap, or when he butts heads with his father.
The legacy of partition in India hangs over all the characters in the film. Bashir, who escaped to Pakistan from India as a young boy before immigrating to the UK, is reluctant to discuss his survival story. Zed's hereditary illness—the body attacking itself—could be viewed as the trauma of separation nestling its way into his generation. Mogul Mowgli makes an excellent case for the body holding memory.
Yet in many places, the film and its characters remain incredibly murky, the connections and motivations between them not feeling fully fleshed out. Annika Summerson's cinematography is beautiful, but the beauty doesn't quite bridge the gap between image and meaning.
In fact, when the movie ended, I gasped. I felt there was so much more of the story to unravel and settle into. Compared to Ahmed's character and performance in the similar Sound of Metal, Zed—while imbued with a lot more specificity—lacked the gut punch delivered in the comparable film. Though there's a lot of good in Mogul Mowgli, I wonder what the film would be if pushed just a bit further.
Read more about our top SIFF recommendations here. The digital fest runs through April 18.