One of my least favourite genres is the one that confuses suffering and entertainment; sentimental films about people battling fatal diseases, washed over with sentiment, and exploiting genuine tragedy to create fake gravitas. I call them ‘hurry up and die’ movies, because that’s usually what I’m thinking when I watch them. My fear when I sat down to Mogul Mowgli was that it sounded like another rotten apple from that diseased barrel; how enthusiastic are you for the story of a young man who discovers that he’s got a hereditary, degenerative disease that sees his immune system turn on itself?
That Mogul Mowgli is as good as it is largely due to a heroic performance by Riz Ahmed, a household name by dint of his work on the Star Wars movie Rogue One. He’s convincing in the musical stretches as the gifted Zed a British/Pakistani rapper who is about to embark on a lucrative support tour when he gets his diagnosis, but also offers up a soulful feel for his character that means that his plight is genuinely affecting. So many films skip the hard details of medical treatment, but anyone who spends time in NHS hospitals will recognise the steely, professional medical staff, the bland rooms, hard chairs and lonely corridors.
This is a dark and difficult film to be sure, but a rewarding one; there’s an agonising and yet blazingly powerful scene late on in which Zed calls up his ex girlfriend to see if she’d want access to the sperm he’s planning to freeze before his forthcoming stem-cell replacement therapy destroys his fertility. Such scenes persuade, but also require trigger warnings due to their unerring bleakness. With much of the world staring down the barrel of Covid-19 right now, such scenes may be hard to handle for audiences, but speak honestly and sincerely about the universal sanctity of human life.
Bassam Tariq’s film is no crowd-pleaser, but a deep dive into illness and pain. Without sentimentality, there’s nothing to hang onto but Zed’s faint hope of survival, and yet, vague spoiler alert, a surprisingly upbeat conclusion makes the journey worthwhile. Ahmed really shows himself as a top-class actor here, and seems intent on breaking a few stereotypes about the portrayal of Muslim characters in cinema, which can only be a good thing. I’m not sure about the viability of awards ceremonies during a pandemic that has stopped all but streaming services get their movies out to the public, but Ahmed surely puts himself in the frame with his heartfelt performance here.
Thanks to the BFI for early access to this title.
Mogul Mowgli is screening in UK cinemas from October 30th 2020.