Zaheer “Zed” (Riz Ahmed) is a British-Pakistani rapper who has been working for two years in New York. Before embarking on a new tour the prodigal son returns home to London to see his family and reconnect with them. While there he experiences some strange symptoms and is urgently hospitalised.
Diagnosed with a serious and debilitating health condition, he faces a major shift in life and has to come to terms with the loss of his dreams.
His previous life was frenetic. His rapping and his performances spark with raw gutteral energy. Now struggling to move he is forced to consider what his life means and how he fits in. He is an immigrant forging his own life in the way he wants but still haunted by the spectre of Pakistani culture in his subconscious. A mysterious and terrifying figure bathed in flowers frequently haunts his thoughts and his rapping, stopping him mid flow. During an interview the filmmakers described Islam as “a tremendous cinematic opportunity”. It’s wonderful to see Islam presented in a rich and loving way on screen.
The facial-tattooed rival rapper RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan) is poised to take his place on the next tour, much to Zed’s dismay. And while his family try to be helpful they bring a lot of baggage for him to deal with. Their immigrant identities, their fleeing from the violent partition of India and Pakistan, and struggling to fit in with UK culture all come to the fore.
The film is visually and emotionally claustrophobic, concentrating the intensity. It is shot in near-square aspect ratio and many scenes are in small rooms or crowded spaces. Extreme close ups put small actions and expressions under the microscope. Zaheer’s world and his body have suddenly been shrunk to the bare minimum.
His strained relationship with his parents and his father in particular is tested. His father’s more traditional views about medicine clash with the treatment options available through the National Health Service in the UK.
The clash of cultures is a backdrop that looms large. Conflict frequently arises with race and immigration or religious disagreement at the core. Even within Zed’s rapping world, the younger up-and-coming RPG is too distant from Zed’s style for him to be able to connect with. Not even a full generation apart, culture has shifted so much so that it’s almost unrecognisable.
Ahmed’s gutsy performance is deeply affecting and grounds the whole film. He is deeply haunted and pained, desperate to cling on to his career, his freedom and his dignity. Films about personal health struggles are not rare but the context here makes this a special one.
This film is gripping and powerful, weaving cultural history and family relationships into a rich tapestry that supports Ahmed’s compelling central performance.
Hi, I'm Caz. I live in Edinburgh and I watch a lot of films. My reviews focus mainly on women in film - female directors or how women are represented on screen.