For this week's film club, Maxwell Tait looks at Mogul Mowgli, and Riz Ahmed's electrifying, deeply-personal performance as British-Pakistani rapper Zed. That, plus Poetic Justice & Wot Do U Call It, two more films featuring poets, MCs and all-round wordsmiths.
“Salaam, wagwan bruv, you is sick”
With the exception of Zoom and hand sanitizer manufacturers, has anyone had a better 12 months than Riz Ahmed? Consistent performances throughout the 2010’s in films like Four Lions and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story have finally paid dividends in the form of two high-stakes lead roles — Sound of Metal & Mogul Mowgli. Both films open with Ahmed as a musician, performing on stage, captivating an audience. Ahmed — a successful musician in his own right — has played with Mos Def, Massive Attack, and, alongside Heems, is one half of Swet Shop Boys. Both films then throw an intense, disruptive physical malady at Ahmed. And both films give a very personal account of Ahmed’s character dealing with the fallout of his new condition.
They really are similar on paper. In terms of commercial success, there can only be one winner when you compare USA-based Sound of Metal, with the financial clout of Amazon Studios behind it, against Mogul Mowgli’s relatively small-time BBC/BFI-backing. A noisy neighbour if I ever heard of one. But if you’re losing a battle to anything, you couldn’t find a better film to be beat by. Sound of Metal is an astonishingly good piece of filmmaking; right now, there are a lot of 21st century Academy Award for Best Picture winners relieved that they didn’t have that to contend with.
Anyway, no one wins when you fail to consider things on their own terms (I’m hardly helping by taking two paragraphs to get to Mogul Mowgli). Zed (Ahmed) is a successful, doggedly ambitious British-Pakistani rapper that has just been given the breakout tour support-slot that he’s been working towards. Before taking off to Europe, Zed decides to return to London for the first time in two years. It’s an uneasy homecoming — family relationships are strained despite clear unconditional love, Zed is derided for the westernisation of his name Zaheer, and there’s a confrontation with a fan outside a mosque that ends in him being derogatorily labelled a ‘coconut’. Then, all of a sudden, this tension snaps: Zed’s tour plans are blindsided when he is hospitalised by a serious autoimmune disease.
Once you get past the back-of-the-DVD synopsis, the similarities to Sound of Metal quickly fade. As opposed to the former’s close-study of deafness, Mogul Mowgli is a deeply personal film cowritten by Ahmed and New York-based Pakistani director Bassim Tariq, that uses Zed’s condition as a means to examine the complexities of the British-Pakistani experience. This is a familiar subject for Ahmed particularly, who has been dissecting his cultural experience in his music for many years.
As Zed’s health deteriorates to the point where he can barely walk, we’re gradually submerged in a heady cocktail of hallucinatory scenes. Many of these moments represent the difficulties that Zed’s parents, Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) and Bashir (Alyy Khan), faced integrating themselves into 20th century Britain: a mysterious masked apparition, Toba Tek Singh, stalks Zed, borrowed from Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story of the same name, concerning the bloody partition of India in 1947; we see hazy images of Zed’s father during the partition, in a crowded train carriage; we see the opening night of his and Nasra’s restaurant, broken glass everywhere. Fantasy even begins to invade reality, like when a crockery-chattering earthquake goes unnoticed during an ordinary family meal. It’s fragmented and oblique, we’re rarely certain of what is imagined and what is flashback.
It isn’t a film that will tie up loose-ends, but if Mogul Mowgli gave you a comprehensive roadmap it would limit the expressive potential of Ahmed’s razor wire performance. As it is, Zed is hard to pin down, flipping from humorous acceptance of his circumstances to flying off the handle; introspective and considered to infantile selfishness. It’s this unpredictability that lends the film a unique, dark humour. There’s a fertility clinic sketch with a mad reference to There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview; it would make you cackle if it was Larry David, but instead of laughing you find yourself pursing your lips and wide-eyed.
Crucially for all music fiction, the film understands its place within the Hip Hop canon. Zed’s plight has obvious parallels with the tragic illness of the legendary J Dilla, reinforced when Zed’s manager and close friend Vaseem (Anjana Vasan) chastises him for blasphemy — “Don’t take Dilla’s name in vain.” A high point of the film is rapper RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), Zed’s nemesis. He’s part-Lil Pump, part-Doja Cat: daft lyrics, but the kids love him. Lined up to replace Zed on his dream tour, RPG provides some mind-melting comic relief — “There’s no Drake without Whoopi Goldberg” — and his knowing assertion that “Nandos is a South African franchise” carries enough baggage that it could be the film’s thesis. Mogul Mowgli is constantly asking difficult questions like this of national identity, like when Zed revisits a rap battle from his youth against a young British-Nigerian MC. It’s like an inverse 8 Mile; it feels as though you’re watching from another room, and bars are being dealt through treacle.
Mogul Mowgli’s idiosyncrasies will undoubtedly be a turn off for those that prefer films that are easy to define, that Netflix has a lovely little slot for. As an audience, we have a responsibility to celebrate these fresh, exciting instances where genres — or cultures — blend. After all, where would Wu-Tang be without East-Asian influences. So, revel in the platform that Bassam Tariq and Mogul Mowgli provide for the talent that is Riz Ahmed, and don’t let the Daily M*il anywhere near his piercing verses on poppies.
Poetic Justice (Singleton, 1993)
If you’re going through any kind of existential crisis then don’t dwell too long on the fact that the late, great John Singleton was just 24 when he made history with his debut film Boyz n the Hood, becoming the youngest director to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. Any follow up to a film as good as Boyz n the Hood would be an easy sell, but Singleton pulled out all the stops for Poetic Justice.
Janet Jackson is Justice, a young poet grieving the violent death of her boyfriend (played by Q-Tip). She spends her days working in a buzzy hair salon, but her true form of expression is through her poetry. When Justice is convinced to go on a rut-breaking road trip with friend Iesha (Regina King) and her boyfriend Chicago (Joe Torry), she is mortified to see that the fourth member of their party is that mailman that hit on her at work — Lucky (Tupac Shakur). Queue flirting, fighting, and maybe falling in love, all in the front seat of an American post van.
Just to clarify, this is a romcom starring Janet Jackson and Tupac, with Regina King as the buddy with a problematic partiality for gin and juice. We're even treated to much more than a cameo from illustrious poet Maya Angelou; Justice’s poetry that features throughout the film is all the work of Angelou (Singleton would immortalise his admiration for Angelou by naming his first daughter after her).
With a cast like this, Poetic Justice is an easy sell, and apart from a couple of moments where the writing drifts onto rumble strips, the film fulfils its promise, delivering a woozy kind of South Central The Straight Story but with more arguing. And, lamentably, Hollywood films with black female leads are hard to come by, even now. Jackson and Tupac make for sweet company, and obviously the film has an enduring poignancy for the tragic death of Tupac just three years later, who Singleton had long-term plans for — “He was going to be my Robert DeNiro.”
Wot Do U Call It (Smith, 2003)
I don’t think I ever really fit in too well at school, but there was a bit where I tried. We’re talking the halcyon days of Sony Ericsson and Sven-Göran Eriksson. I wasn’t a complete loser but also I was — I had Total 90 astroturfs and was a mid-tier pick by captains, but I was also quite good in class. I was on the family computer instead of hanging out in the park. I chose the 1st-gen iPod Shuffle 512mb over a mobile phone with proper bluetooth functionality. I think this paints a grainy, 2 megapixel picture that I can send to you via infra-red under the table while the teacher is looking at the whiteboard.
It took about a year for grime to make the hour commute from London Liverpool Street Station to the state schools of Cambridge, so it was there and popular, but everything was on a weird delay. I did my own internet research and ended up listening to Roll Deep and Kano. I’d never really been that into Eminem like all my mates when we were nine, so consider this my first micro rebellion. No illusions of any kind of contextual resonance, just absolutely vibing to it in the background while Runescape was on mute.
But it turned out I was listening to the wrong thing. "Who the fuck is Wiley?” No one was listening to these dinosaurs. Looking back, I honestly can’t remember exactly what the bigger boys had coming out their phones (Tinchy Stryder?), but in the fickle times of secondary school where you lose sleep over the colour of your socks, it was like turning up to a disco in full renaissance.
Putting aside his recent social media outbursts, Wot Do U Call It is basically a 9 minute puff-piece for 'godfather of grime' Wiley’s anvil of the same name, directed by Adam Smith for Channel 4’s ‘Future Shorts’. It’s well worth a watch though, just to see familiar faces from grime’s early days chat to the camera in cars and East London side streets, pre-Stormzy, pre-Skepta — even if it has been filmed and preserved by a washing machine/tumble dryer combo. They’ve all got no idea the Mercury Prize and V Festival and Calvin Harris are about to change everything, and Dance Wiv Me and Bonkers are on the horizon.
Wot Do U Call It is on YouTube.
Tim Key practices his poetry in 2005
In which a fresh-faced Key doles out poems to an off camera Alex Horne, like a mixologist delicately placing cocktails in front of you that you didn't order.