Mogul Mowgli starts out as a music-biz narrative with a twist. Its man-on-the-mic, British-Pakistani rapper Zed (Riz Ahmed), isn't some plucky underdog desperate for a break, as were the heroes of 8 Mile and Gully Boy, rather a young man at something close to the top of his game. We join Zed as he rounds off a sold-out gig in New York before an audience of adoring fans, hearing word as we pass backstage of major-label interest, and news of a European tour as support to an even bigger name besides. Yet as the cheers subside, it becomes apparent that Zed is also something of a lost soul, endlessly touring in search of something or other: money, fame, respect. And he can't stop, muttering even in what should be his sleep. He's on the brink in more ways than one, this restless lad, and it looks exhausting. The bulk of Bassam Tariq's debut feature, co-written by director and star, investigates what happens after someone who's loosened all ties returns to his family home in the London suburbs, where he's referred to by his given name Zaheer, and the health issues he'd presumably suppressed to go out on the road flare up in a major, life-altering way. Here, Zed has finally to confront all that past, all that heritage he'd left behind or failed to process, from the tangible (the demo tapes scattered on the shelves of his teenage bedroom) to the trickier business of his relationship with his devoutly Muslim father, and the longer-standing matter of Britain's role in the division of India and Pakistan. This is, in short, a lot; it's no surprise a protagonist who initially stood before us as a superstar in the making should finish the film looking for all the world like a broken man.
It also explains why Mogul Mowgli feels so schizophrenic for much of its running time. You can't fault Tariq and Ahmed's ambition here, but what they've assembled is two or three films in one, much as their protagonist is at once Zed (young man with world at feet), Zair (product of his circumstances) and vulnerable flesh-and-blood besides. Tariq's direction broadly goes for pared-down realism: he deploys that square frame Andrea Arnold brought back into arthouse fashion both as a means of tightening his focus a little and bearing down further on his already overburdened hero. Yet occasionally, out of nowhere, he'll reach for some expressionist flourish, like the figure in a headdress who reappears in moments of crisis to remind Zed of the sickness (in the original, and not the rap sense) of Partition. That's a taste of the seriousness of the issues Mogul Mowgli is turning over; yet we also get a sidebar about a rival, more commercial rapper, RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), whose twerk-heavy videos serve as a source of sniggering humour. Another influence asserts itself: Atlanta, the FX series set in the rap game and headed up by a notable polymath (for Donald Glover there, read Ahmed here), which over its two seasons has veered from slapsticky comedy to state-of-the-nation address via more sincere, heartfelt relationship material. I'd only say that it's easier to pull off those tonal shifts on TV, where there are pauses for adbreaks and a week's gap between episodes; in a 90-minute movie, such switch-ups point towards madness, or at least cacophony.
Thank heavens, then, for Ahmed, one of our most expressive and skilful performers, who's been either slightly underutilised or wisely selective in the decade since his 2008 breakout Shifty. He withers as this narrative demands - his ribcage looms out from a mid-film shower scene - but for long stretches the actor is just about the only element holding a fractured, distractible film together. A sometime MC himself, it was almost a given that he convince as the electrifying performer we see spraying rhymes at the start of the movie, yet he's also very good as the frail young man forced by medical circumstance to drop the imposture of his stage act, whose increasingly burdened body seems a consequence of an especially troubled mind: it's a performance that converts all Mogul Mowgli's issues into palpable, perishable flesh. (Watching Zair submit to cupping by superstitious relatives, I briefly wondered why someone in this kid's position - who appears to have started making serious bank - wouldn't have access to more proven forms of medical care; but by that point Ahmed has done all we need to suggest that a character once flanked by entourage is now essentially helpless.) So it's a lively mixed bag with a grounding central turn, and Tariq already looks capable of consolidating his big ideas with an effective image or two; the route is haphazard, but he finally leaves us at an understanding of the mental and physical toll history takes on even those who may want nothing to do with it. In the madness and noise it has to cut through to achieve this clarity, Mogul Mowgli feels like a distinctly 21st century film: an attempt to get its head around everything that's presently driving us cuckoo and wearing us down. If it doesn't all work, you can't say it's not doing the work.
Mogul Mowgli previews in selected cinemas nationwide tomorrow night as part of the 2020 London Film Festival; it opens October 30.