★★★☆☆

Riz Ahmed battles questions of cultural and religious identity, familial expectation, self and health in order to find his calling, and to find his way home, in Mogul Mowgli.

Knowing where you’re going cannot be known without knowing where you’ve come from, and director Bassam Tariq’s layered narrative feature debut shifts through time and space as Zaheer searches for his answers.

Few actors working today can claim to have the same level of electric, captivating screen presence as Ahmed, who co-wrote the script for Mogul Mowgli with Tariq. Following his gritty, physical performance in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal as a drummer who struggles with the loss of his hearing, here he puts to use astonishing lyrical prowess as a rapper seeking to make his big break in America.

Having adopted the stage name Zed, we walk on stage under a shower of blue and orange neon, as a baying NYC crowd lap up every syllable of an angry, rhythmic diatribe whose energy and delivery lights the touch paper. And perhaps even ignites Zed’s chance for the big tour he’s so long strived for. But images and sounds that precede this performance, the whistle of a train and a musty carriage, and a motif that will recur and evolve speaks to another force that rumbles in the background.

An inexorable force perhaps, one that troubles Zed, and at the suggestion of his soon to be ex-girlfriend, Bina (a terribly underused Aiysha Hart), urges him to travel home for the first time in far too long. Welcomed back to Wembley by a mother (Sudha Bhuchar) who fusses and says he’s not eating enough, and a father (Alyy Khan) simply glad to have his boy home, Zed takes a walk down memory lane of old mix tapes, catching up with relatives and hearing their familiar tales.

Director of photography Annika Summerson’s squared aspect is not concerned with the perfect framing of faces or spaces, instead training our eye to search for meaning in the same way Zed does: What is it he is looking for? And how will he know when he’s found it? Accused by a devout cousin of having lost a part of himself, or even selling out, during his time in the States, Zed seems out of place – or at least slightly out of his comfort zone – when he attends mosque with his father. But it is an altercation, excruciating pain and an emergency trip to the hospital that changes Zed’s course entirely.

Delirious metaphysical visions of a veiled man named Toba Tek Singh (after a town that was moved into Pakistan from India after the 1947 Partition), haunt Zed’s waking dreams. “Why is this happening?” he asks a consultant as he is told that an inherited autoimmune condition is wasting away his muscles. Traditional medicine proposed by his father versus the experimental infusion he is to receive at the hospital is yet another conflictual idea that is thrown into a bubbling mix.

These are symptomatic of a film that is chock full of insight, piercing ideas and visual metaphors that unfortunately are never fully realised. Zed’s potential infertility – and inability to continue the family line – and an ill-advised call to Bina from a sperm bank is a continuation of this. There is nonetheless a lot on show in Mogul Mowgli for audiences to look forward to whatever Tariq does next, and of course to watch the unstoppable rise of Ahmed to greater and greater heights.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63