September 10, 2021
In “Toba Tek Singh,” a 1955 short story by Saadat Hasan Manto, patients at two mental asylums find out that they must be transferred to different sides of the newly formed border separating India and Pakistan following Partition. One patient in particular claims he is neither from India nor Pakistan, but from Toba Tek Singh. When no one seems to know whether Toba Tek Singh is now a part of India or Pakistan, the patient lays himself down, prostrate on the ground, between the two countries. The story ends: “There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”
Though the film never stops to explain the story’s significance, viewers of director Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli will recognize “Toba Tek Singh” as the nerve-wracking metronome that keeps steady time in the background. The name is chanted during every flashback and nervous episode that Riz Ahmed’s Zed, the protagonist, experiences. In a tweet from November 9, 2020, Ahmed wrote, “To me Toba Tek Singh reminds us that this feeling of displacement is not a new one. Our ancestors felt it…It's about being haunted by the ghosts of the past but also blessed by its spirit.”
As rapper Zed, Ahmed is haunted from the inside out. He is haunted by freestyle battles that never went down, by other rappers who can’t spin language the way he can, by harrowing flashbacks of his childhood working at his father’s restaurant, by stories of his father’s childhood migrating from India to Pakistan, by a disease that makes him exponentially weaker by the minute, and by an identity he purports to speak for but cannot fully understand. And, throughout it all, he’s also haunted by Ghulam Mian (Jeff Mirza), a figure masked by a sehra who shows up only in Zed’s dreams, nightmares, and hallucinations, an ever-present avatar reminding him that there is still so much more he has to unveil.
As he returns to his childhood home in London, rapper Zed quickly has to face a side of himself he has long been avoiding. In New York, he kills with verses like, “They put their boots on our ground/I put my roots in their ground/I put my truth in this sound/I’ll spit my truth and it’s Brown,” presenting himself as a politically conscious poet in a sea of his self-hating, second-generation peers. But, as his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Bina points out, for someone who flaunts himself as a proud Pakistani, Zed spends pitifully little time with his family. His cousin also berates him for taking on the Anglicized moniker “Zed” rather than his birth name of Zaheer.
And there are still parts of his identity he does not know how to parse — as much as he wants to be an advocate for young, proud Muslims, Zed fumbles over basic traditions, and rolls his eyes at every superstition or ritual his parents throw at him. Much like Ahmed himself, Zed is the son of Pakistani immigrants, born and bred on the land of his family’s colonizers. The songs Zed performs also stem directly from Ahmed himself — most are taken from Ahmed’s 2020 album The Long Goodbye. That includes the aptly titled track “Toba Tek Singh,” in which he raps: “Went to war for you/Koh-i-noor for you/Brittney you take the piss/Left me in no man’s land/Brittania’s a bitch.”