So. I’ll have to watch that again. It had so much in it and went by too fast.
On paper, the plot to Mogul Mowgli is about a rapper who is incapacitated by a neurological auto-immune disease, just as he’s about to get a big break in his career. In practice though, the majority of the meaning of this film is told in the visions the main character has while collapsing unconscious, or being sedated for surgery, or drugged up on treatment. In this liminal space, he has a dialogue with his history, from his father’s escape during Partition, to his childhood rejecting of his Pakistani identity.
The main character Zaheer, whose rap name is Zed, makes music that is culturally-conscious, exploring ideas of identity, colonialism, and internalised racism. On stage, he is so articulate about the myriad threads that weave together in him. But outside the gig, his ex-girlfriend calls bullshit on him. He lives in America, and rarely goes home to Britain and his family. She sees him as dislocated, not facing who he really is, and espousing a harmonious version of himself that is largely a myth he tells himself.
The physical condition that takes him down is a bodily manifestation of this, and in the fog of pain it causes him, he revisits the moments that have contributed to who he is. A repeated image and sound is that of his father as a child, escaping the violence of Partition by train, under a heap of coats, surrounded either physically or psychically by the dead, as he desperately prays under his breath. The rhythm of the prayer, the rhythm of the train, and the rhythm of Zaheer’s rap resound together, in a way that belies the truth – his relationship with his father is strained, and his father has never spoken about his experience except to describe this single image, that he travelled by train under coats. And this whole melodic and visual motif speaks to the notion of what has been inherited and what has been lost, that this unspoken part of Zaheer’s history has left him without an important understanding of who his father is, and by extension who he is. This generational trauma is being passed in silence, until it shuts down his nervous system so as to no longer be ignored.
The biological is cultural. This is a truth that goes ignored and unstated by those that don’t need to hear it, because the culture is based around them as central and default, and serves their needs and wants, while denying the rest of us our existence. The biological is cultural, the way your body is shaped, your clay, is a manifestation of your culture’s values, and how your culture values you. Where does culture exist but in the body? How you transmit knowledge, agency, and creation is a physical act.
And cultural violence is biological violence. Look to the blood pressure and hypertension levels among people who deal with systematic racism. Look at the rates of heart disease and diabetes. Hell, look at the survival rates in the current Covid pandemic.
This film reminds me of Billy-Ray Belcourt, the essayist and poet, who talks about the gaslighting that goes on around health issue rates among indigenous Canadians. It reminds me of In My Blood It Runs, where a denial of Aboriginal Australian traditional healing practices is simultaneously a denial of Aboriginal Australian pain. And it reminds me of the novel, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, which talks about how what was taken cannot be passed on, but its absence can.
In trying to heal, the main character has to look at who Zaheer is, rather than Zed. The alchemy he has used to fuse African-American rap to South Asian music traditions while he rhymes in his English accent has given him a future where he can see himself as an uncontradicted whole, but the past unacknowledged is turning it all to lead.
Mogul Mowgli is a work of sound and movement, a film that is a dance, or an absence of dance, in which stillness is the necessary accompaniment if you are to listen.