‘Mogul Mowgli’ directed by Bassam Tariq (UK, 2020)
Showing at the London Film Festival on Saturday 10th October and Tuesday 13th October.
Review by Khalid Ali, film, and Media Correspondent
Professor Marshall Marinker argues that there are significant differences between ‘disease’, ‘illness’ and ‘sickness.’ Disease signifies a pathology that is often physical and is an objective term that doctors can relate to. Illness denotes a personal experience that is mostly felt by the individual. Sickness is an external status of unhealth that affects the individual’s role in society and how society responds (1).
‘Mogul Mowgli’ reflects on the above interpretations of ‘human suffering’ via the compelling story of Zaheer (Riz Ahmed), a talented British -Pakistani rapper who uses ‘Zed’ as his stage name. He has been performing in New York for two years, away from his traditional devout Pakistani parents back in Wembley, London. Just before going on a music tour, he is urged by his girlfriend to reconnect with his estranged family. Reluctantly Zed travels back to London where he is expected to join in extended family gatherings, and prayers at the local mosque. Frequent arguments and confrontations make him an outsider in his own home.
A hereditary genetic autoimmune illness suddenly hits the egocentric, ambitious rapper forcing him to be admitted to hospital. A consultant neurologist offers an aggressive form of treatment for the rapidly progressive neuro-degenerative disease, a treatment which can render Zaheer permanently sterile. Physically crippled by his illness, abandoned by his girlfriend, his nemesis RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan) taking his place in the music tour, Zaheer calls out to a nurse at his most vulnerable state ‘I am finished’.
(See the film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kkg-bHOMD9I)
The aforementioned distinction between ‘disease’, ‘illness’ and ‘sickness’ becomes the core of Zaheer’s story. The doctors can only appreciate the disease that must be cured while Zed’s priority is to recover from his ‘illness’ and to resume his music career. There is a distinct divide between the patient’s and doctor’s agendas; each has a totally different concept of what constitutes ‘health and well-being’. Bashir (Alyy Khan), Zaheer’s father, mistrusts the ‘British doctor’ and sneaks in traditional healers to perform ‘hijamaa’ (cupping) on Zaheer in hospital. Bashir passionately believes that preserving one’s legacy through having children is the essence of any Muslim’s life; having no children is the ‘ultimate sicknesses.’ Different interpretations of ‘health’ were explored by Kenneth Boyd stating ‘‘the precise meaning of terms like health, healing and wholeness is likely to remain elusive , because the disconcerting openness of the outlook gained from experience alone resists the reduction of first-person judgements (including those of religion) to third-person explanations (including those of science)’’ (2).
Both father and son carry a historical and cultural baggage; both are trying differently to establish their unique identities. The son uses rap music to challenge racial stereotyping and prejudice against Pakistanis in the UK referred to as ‘coconuts.’ Alternatively, the father adheres to religion and Pakistani customs and traditions to assert his status in a hostile society.
The illness triggers an acute psychotic reaction in Zaheer; he is frequently haunted by visual and auditory hallucinations from a mythical figure called ‘Toba Tek Singh’ which embodies Zaheer/ Zed conflict between his Muslim origin and British upbringing. Toba Tek Singh, named after the Pakistani city (3), is both a scary monster personifying Zaheer’s demons and a wise guru urging him to reconnect with his roots. At a time of suffering and disappointment, Zaheer begins to reflect on and embrace his spiritual and cultural heritage. Anger is slowly replaced by a new form of control over his illness using the weapon he knows best, his rap music.
Riz Ahmed delivers a tour-de-force performance as the embittered prodigal son. Co-written by Bassam Tariq and Riz Ahmed, both of Pakistani origin adds layers of authenticity to a familiar storyline, this time told candidly by two exceptionally talented film makers. Riz Ahmed brings his musical background as an established rapper in ‘Swet Shop Boys’ group. Scenes of caustic rap music, black humour, and humanity especially in the father-son relationship make the film an emotional roller coaster.
The viewer is left with an unanswered question; can Zaheer’s illness be cured, can his sicknesses be reversed? The answer might be no, but there is always hope in the power of music and one’s heritage as agents for change and salvation.
- Marinker M. Why make people patients? Journal of Medical Ethics 1975; 1: 81-4.
- Boyd K. Disease, illness, sickness, health, healing and wholeness: exploring some elusive concepts. J Med Ethics: Medical Humanities 2000; 26: 9-17.