The words ‘Toba Tek Singh’ carry a lot of historical weight, particularly when used in the context of Bassam Tariq’s new film, his first venture into fiction. As well as a town in the Punjab province of Pakistan, it is the name of a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-55), published in 1955, a satire about the fraught and violent relationship between Pakistan and India. Mogul Mowgli begins within a memory for which that name bears great significance, depicting the hazy interior of a train carriage that contains Muslim refugees fleeing the Partition of India in 1947.
Riz Ahmed released a song named after Manto’s story earlier this year; and in Mogul Mowgli – which he cowrote with Tariq – ‘Toba Tek Singh’ becomes the basis of a hook for the latest song by British Pakistani rapper Zed. Ahmed himself plays Zed, finally harnessing his experience as an MC for the big screen.
Those familiar with his work as half of the duo Swet Shop Boys will recognise the mixture of aggressive hip-hop delivery as well as politics specific to South Asian immigrant experience, with samples from traditional music (Zed even wears Swet Shop Boys merchandise).
Zed is a huge success, about to embark on a world tour, but at odds with his family. Shortly before the tour, he is struck down by an autoimmune disease that serves to externalise his identity crisis – his body literally attacking itself as he struggles to reconcile his interests with his roots. (Interesting to note that in the upcoming Sound of Metal Ahmed again plays a hardheaded musician dealing with the deterioration of his body – in that case, his hearing.)
Hallucinations and visions of the past intensify as Zed’s condition worsens. These visions blur the line between his own life and his family’s history, as he witnesses images of his father’s experience on a train from India to Pakistan during Partition as though he were there.
Rather than reflect on how the experience is affecting him, Zed seeks the quickest route out – partly pressured by the threat of his tour slot being usurped by up-and-coming rapper RPG, who may claim Zed as an inspiration, but mostly just frustrates him.
Through these dreams Tariq’s film takes on more delirious, magic realist qualities. He keeps the camera extremely close to his subjects, magnifying everything that they observe into near abstraction. Some moments echo the confrontational, direct to camera stares of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). And Mogul Mowgli has something of the subjective, personal feel of those films – it’s focused purely on the dynamics of Zed’s family and friends, the cast mostly populated by British- Pakistani actors, with nary a white person in sight.
The tension the film depicts, between second-generation immigrants and the first-generation parents whose culture they are leaving behind, is hardly unfamiliar, and the film perhaps underlines that theme a bit too obviously – as when Zed’s girlfriend says, early on, “For someone who raps about home so much, when was the last time you saw your family?”
That gap, and Zed’s struggle to navigate his cultural identity, are exacerbated by a number of touches – Zed speaking English while his family speak Urdu; the constant corrections from younger cousins or even passers-by to his etiquette and approach to traditional values; even the simple fact of him using ‘Zed’ as an Anglicised version of the name ‘Zaheer’.
Though the conflicts are familiar, Tariq and Ahmed achieve unpredictability in the rhythms of their narrative and the journey that Zed takes as he is beset by illness. Better yet is how the two writers imbue the conflicts with a lively sense of humour – take RPG’s awful chart-topping song, Zed’s ridiculously pedantic socio-political arguments at dinner with his extended family, or the disastrous intersectional interactions between Zed and a group of Black rappers during an imagined freestyle battle.
All in all, Mogul Mowgli is confident and confrontational, exhilarating in its willingness to constantly shift gears between absurdist comedy and vulnerable, introspective narrative.
Sound of Metal explores the moment the music stops
Riz Ahmed stars as a rock dummer losing his hearing in Darius Marder’s ambitious melodrama, which finds universal resonances in a very specific experience.
By Beatrice Loayza
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