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Berlinale Bloggers 2020
Riz Ahmed’s "Mogul Mowgli" Lays Bare the Struggle of a British Asian Identity Juggle

Riz Ahmed in "Mogul Mowgli" von Bassam TariqRiz Ahmed in "Mogul Mowgli" by Bassam Tariq
Riz Ahmed in "Mogul Mowgli" by Bassam Tariq | © Mughal Mowgli Ltd, BBC

You could feel co-director Bassam Tariq’s documentary background when watching Mogul Mowgli. The film didn’t just represent an identity struggle of a British Pakistani rapper called Zed, every small detail was offered. From the pile of folded cream sheets every Asian household seems to have in the hallway, to plastic covered sofas, and biscuit tins older than the children filled with anything but biscuits. It really grounded the story for when the magical realist elements crept in.

By Neelam Tailor

Zaheer encounters a supernatural character called Toba Tek Singh who Ahmed explains represents “the complexity of his own heritage that he is trying to make peace with”, amongst other things. Through jerky flashbacks to his dad’s violent experiences of the British partition of India and Pakistan, we are guided through inherited trauma. The period severed families and friends, leaving many in ruins, and this trauma was passed down through the generations in the diaspora all over the world. It didn’t matter that Zaheer wasn’t there, it was a vivid part of his heritage.

What Names Tell About Identity

Zed, or Zaheer as we later learn, goes by the name white Brits gave him. The acceptance that comes from white people with the adoption of a ‘pronounceable’ version of your name feels completely worth it when you’re in your teens. Often we come to defend our choice to take middle and end from our name, or flatten all the consonants to a palatable level, saying we prefer it, just as Zaheer did in the film. It was one of the many beautiful metaphors for Zaheer’s identity struggle.
After moving to New York to follow his musical dreams, he returns to his family home in London. Zaheer suddenly experiences an autoimmune condition and can’t walk - it was another salient metaphor. “Autoimmune conditions are when your body doesn't recognise itself. It's not, it's at war with itself. It's attacking itself. And so for me is this identity crisis played out on a molecular level,” Riz Ahmed explains in the Q&A.

Islam was a steady theme throughout, but it was presented as an everyday aspect of Zaheer’s life rather than the core plot pin. I cheered as Ahmed pointed out “Islam is usually the thing that's going to get someone killed in a movie is kind of crazy, right?”. He continues:

This is a movie where there's a dude that comes out into the hospital in the middle of the night, wearing rose garland on his face that can allow you to time travel. And still this is the most realistic portrayal of Islam in someone's life that I've ever fucking seen in a film. So there's something kind of crazy about that, right?

The “no man’s land”, as Ahmed describes, that Zaheer finds himself in, is very familiar. Seeing the rejection from all sides, that many people in the South Asian diaspora experience, played out on screen was a power play and I felt both grateful and exposed. You see that in this situation, it is about self acceptance, and finding your space within that no man’s land that is the challenge for many.