Artist Mahtab Hussain dissects Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed’s electric new film
Displacement of people. That brutally egregious act by people upon other people, lies at the heart of Bassam Tariq’s deeply constructed drama, Mogul Mowgli, which explores through multifaceted ways, the wounds of searing generational trauma still felt today, psychologically, emotionally and physically. Co-written with Riz Ahmed, who also assumes the role as the protagonist, Zed, Bassam directs a visually poetic narrative which follows a gifted rapper whose naked, raw ambition to make the big time is cut short when he agonisingly falls victim to a crippling autoimmune disease and is confined to a hospital bed.
This is Tariq’s first fiction piece having previously worked on celebrated documentaries, These Birds Walk (2013), Ghosts of Sugar Land (2019), a background that has clearly flowed into this astonishingly skillful film. With meticulous crafting, Tariq arguably employs hyperrealism and surrealism to explore the continued fallout created by the partition of India, the division of Pakistan into east and west, and later the independence of Bangladesh, through the tragic heroism of Zed, who personifies this unending trauma. Inherited from his father, the disease is divisive, unleashing an internal battle as his body attacks itself from within while his mind exists in and out of reality, plagued by symbolic hallucinations. Paradoxically, the disease is kept at bay by western medication, perhaps a nod to absolution for colonial sins. Ahmed’s performance is magnetic, revealing a brutal honesty that at times feels autobiographical as he unmasks the pain of his ancestors and the youth of today in wholly unfettered terms, liberally offering it to us both as an incarcerated patient and uninhibited intellectual rapper.
Central to the narrative is the opening scene; as the titles sequence rolls, a train horn sounds reminiscent of a time past, and we are thrown onto a fast moving train cutting through forest at night, the speed heightened by the trees lit up like ghostly bystanders from the train’s lights as they synchronise to the monotonous sounds of the wheels on the track. An unfocused moon glints hazily escaping the train’s final destination as the expansive outdoors strangely hems us in. Inside, what appears to be a freight wagon, time slows and our view is narrowed, there is a sense of tranquillity, an almost romantic vision ominously belied by the overwhelming metallic sounds; a limp hand suggests it contains people sleeping surrounded by mounds of belongings, dust float directionless throughout, casting an acute sense of suffocation in deep contrast to the invigorating night outside. We will later understand that this train is carrying Zed’s father, Bashir, as a small child during Partition, his origin and destination are unknown, but the breathtakingly beautiful scene, which fundamentally acts as the narrative’s base colour with its hues of washed grey and occasional white light that catches flakes of dust, is heavy with portentous design.
Of course, there is something intrinsically sinister about the movement of people on freight wagons, and at night, such imagery is entrenched in our psyche given its synonymity with the Nazi Holocaust trains, and the transportation of Uyghur Muslims to Xinjiang ‘re-education camps’ today. To emphasise this association further, the dust would seem to silently echo that from the towers of the Nazi gas chambers, so that as themes from the scene thread themselves throughout the narrative, we watch the dust intermittently appear as a symbolic reminder of systematic death and destruction.
The train noise recedes and measured breathing announces Zed, present-day. Emerging from this eerie serenity, he walks onto a stage at a gig in New York, dressed in the colours of Pakistan, green and white, and begins one of a handful of raps from his album, The Long Goodbye (2020), that ignite the film. These moments seem more akin to Shakespearean monologues, fleshing out the narrative’s deliberations, as Zed in a release of internalised anger discusses the tragic failings of the modern world, broken by perpetual ostracism, racism, sacrifice to Empire, exhausting and conflicting notions of identity politics, the barbarism of the West; yet he seems to obliterate it all with a surging strength to succeed, to shine, to annihilate ‘otherness’ by prophesying of a ‘brown planet’. And later, when he’s lying in bed next to his sleeping girlfriend, Bina, his quiet rage conjures up visions of war again – the wars of self-hatred, war on the streets, global war – as he comes to rest on the poppy, that enduring symbol of western conflict, of remembrance ‘lest we forget’, and forcefully asserts the flowers’ fleeting nature which ultimately won’t/can’t make you remember, after all shockingly, it was a brief two years after the ending of World War II that Partition occurred. In stark contrast Zed persuades his art is, “for all time”, and moreover, it’s rootless and free.
The notion of amnesia feels very present in the drama too and comes to the fore among his parents and wider family to whom he returns having been shamed for not spending enough time with them. Here, the film’s colour palette changes dramatically from the rich luminosity of Zed’s electrifying monologic raps to comforting hues of green and cream, ‘home’ in more ways than one, is painted into every frame. Zed’s father, Bashir, played by Alyy Khan who offers a gentle yet broken father figure, ultimately proud of his boy even if he disagrees with his career choice, has erased his flight from India as child, at least, it’s been superficially forgotten. Zed’s first conversation with his father flits between the mundane to Zed’s rapping career, as Zed attempts to persuade his father to clear his rubbish out, he’s met with a weighty, ostensibly off the cuff response from his father, ‘Tell me, do people even remember the opening act?”. This question seems to have broader meaning when in the next scene Zed’s wider family eat together and Bashir admits to have ostensibly forgotten Partition, and yet, despite the amnesia, the community continues to discuss this first act, unable to move on.
The scenes at home also address the diverse beliefs held between and among the generations, challenging ubiquitous and often nonsensical stereotypical mainstream views of the Muslim community. Bashir’s willingness to let the past fade into the background of the world they now call home jars with his brother-in-law’s wishes to educate the youth about the upheavals and turmoil inflicted upon their community, a line upheld by Zed’s cousin in his youthful unwavering defence of his cultural and religious heritage. By contrast, Zed, seemingly champions a symbiotic existence with western culture, highlighted later in his dismissal of traditional medical practises advocated by his father in favour of the hospital’s conventional therapy he’s offered. Zed in many ways exemplifies a growing section of the youth who, faced with a number of incompatible cultural avenues, have by some alchemic means, unconsciously created an urban cultural hybridity. In many ways, Zed’s cousin is unwittingly party to this too.
Hybridity and defence against cultural appropriation comes to the fore later in the film when Zed, submerged in a dream, finds himself in a rapping contest surrounded by a crowd hungry for a war of words. Like all the dream scenes, it is richly shot, like a glorious oil painting the colours are pungent and otherworldly, an aesthetic link to the scenes of Zed rapping on stage. His opponent, a highly accomplished Black rap artist sets the bar high and aggressively marks out his arguments with supreme ease and eloquence, forcefully stating Black people take the higher social seat, and accusing ‘Pakis’ of seizing and repackaging Black culture. Despite clearly being fused with adrenaline, Zed attempts a robust response, but he’s weak from the disease, he falters, and the crowd shut him down. Such an allegorical look at global racial tension and hierarchy does not forget the white referee characteristically standing back, allowing the feud to play out. It is a gut wrenching sequence, pitifully concluded by the appearance of RPG, Zed’s alter-ego who, amid falling dust, demands the mic, as Zed attempts to swallow it and his words, defiantly locking them away.
But the allure of Black culture was evidently established early on for Zed as he seemingly once overlooked his own cultural heritage. Reminiscing in his bedroom at home he listens to an early rap he recorded on a cassette tape titled in Urdu, ‘Toba Tek Singh’. The lo-fi sound from the tired cassette spurts out glamorous couture brands and flashy lifestyles, it’s distinctly western until suddenly it reverts to the original recording of Qawwalimusic and the words ‘I’m an alcoholic, I’m an alcoholic’. Zed stops and listens carefully examining the case as he peels off a sticker with which he’d renamed the cassette to reveal a man wearing a sehra headdress, inside the cover, the original title reads, Partition. Songs of Trauma.
This scene is pivotal to the fundamental interpretation of the film for another reason too, for the man on the cassette case will become a recurring apparition that disturbs and haunts Zed throughout the narrative as he surrenders to his illness in hospital and falls in and out of a hallucinatory dreamlike state. It soon becomes clear that this figure alludes to the short story, Toba Tek Singh, written in 1955 by Saadat Hasan Manto, a brilliant satirical denouncement of the destruction and madness of Partition. Set a couple of years after the tumultuous year of 1947, it tells the story of patients in an asylum in Lahore who are destined to be transferred to India – one patient, hearing he is from the Pakistani town, Toba TekSingh, refuses to go and instead lies in undisputed land between the borders of Pakistan and Hindustan, announcing it to be Toba Tek Singh while incoherently talking a mixture of Indian and Pakistani languages. With this allegorical story in mind, the figure in Zed’s hallucination takes meaningful shape, and at the opening night of Bashir’s restaurant, he speaks compellingly and directly to us, “People pay attention; They drew a line in the sand; India and Pakistan; East and West; Us and them; I was born from this rupture; And I am the sickness from this separation”. It is clear he exists as the personification of the embodiment of the horrors of Partition, dressed in preparation for marriage or perhaps in readiness for reunification.
Both Toba Tek Singh and Zed may be seen as the manifestation of partition, but Zed epitomises the suffering felt through the generations, a theme explored while Zed is in hospital where his father ostensibly takes on his son’s battle against the disease. Bashir’s insistent attentiveness becomes a considerable source of irritation to Zed, though he is powerless to prevent it as his body reverts to a childlike state. Poignant scenes of Bashir ritualistically pouring water over his son to wash him, attempting to rid him of all the pain, rejection and unwanted thoughts, are delicate moments of shared pain. Increasingly however, Bashir’s involvement seeps into every aspect of Zed’s existence in hospital, and, highly suspicious of the hospital’s suggested treatment, the “doctor’s poison”, Bashir organises cupping – convinced it will work. While blood is pulled from Zed’s back, we are thrown back into the freight train, though this time-sinister imagery dominates, an axe gently hangs and a sword is held by a passenger as we see a hidden young Bashir quietly but determinedly reciting the Qur’an. The pain of the past is profound and absorbing. Throughout these scenes between father and son, there is also an overriding sentiment of powerlessness through Bashir’s clear inability to cure his son. This is brought into sharp focus when Bashir silently puts on layer after layer of work clothes he has worn over the years, and subsequently collapses in front of his son due to effects of the disease on his own body – it also acts a visual metaphor for those who came to Britain to assist in the reconstruction of a broken country, yet were denied the freedom of self-determination.
Tariq and Ahmed have drawn on a range of diverging cultural influences to create an intensely rich work that takes a deeply distressing period of history and superimposes it on to the world of today. Indeed there are elements within the film that could be seen to allude to Hamlet, that most English of plays, reimagined here to tell a story from the east. As a modern day Prince of Denmark, a Mogul Mowgli, Zed’s illness and desperation takes him to the edges of madness, a state of mind echoed in Manto’s short story; as he dips in and out of the realm of nightmares, Toba Tek Singh, invisible to others, speaks of unsettling truths, truths to incite Zed so that he might avenge the death of a nation by seeking to overturn the rhetoric of the west with a war of words. Like Hamlet, who is ultimately destroyed by the fallout from the murder of his father, so Zed’s inheritance of the traumas incited by the destruction of his homeland, personified by his illness, has ultimately crushed his raison d’etre. His reluctance to pass the torch to RPG is palpable, given the realisation that RPG will ultimately be the one to take on the battle, and that it will be won with the use of his effusive lyrical ammunition.
There is also a feeling that the colour tones used throughout the film suggest the influence of Mogul miniature painting, the lofty purity of colour, suitable only for aristocratic subjects seems entrenched in the cinematography. It’s also worth noting that Zed is perpetually surrounded by audiences, or rather, continually under the watchful eye of the community – whether he is on stage with adoring fans, or in a hospital bed surrounded by family and medics, under the knife on the operating table, in his dreams as he fights with wrestlers or rappers, in a mosque, or room full of boys reciting the quran. I wondered if this was another reference to the miniatures, so many of which present rulers at the centre of scenes busy with loyal subjects and servants, watching and honouring their every move, and thereby reinforcing the idea that Zed is a everyday prince, a Mughal of the jungle who might one day unite all, and in so doing, emulate the vast Mughal empire that succeeded in integrating Muslims and Hindus into one unified state. It’s a big assumption perhaps, but it allows me to leave the film energised and optimistic, indeed, the film itself closes on a high note with his ever-present father rebelliously chanting ‘Toka Tek Singh’, along with his son in the bathroom as they listen to RPG on the radio.
It’s liberating, powerful and strangely hopeful.
MOGUL MOWGLI is available on demand now; rent on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema. More information can be found here
Photography courtesy of BFI Distribution