January 12, 2018
Vineet Kumar Singh, Zoya Hussain, Jimmy Sheirgill, Ravi Kishan
It is a wonder that Bollywood has taken so long to wake up to the sports film genre. India’s fractured society and corrupt sports authorities, after all, suck talent into a whirlpool of misogyny, casteism, regionalism and every other imaginable prejudice and power game, throwing up scores of stories begging to be told. Thankfully, the wait has been worth it. After the back-to-back box-office successes of Mary Kom (2014), Sultan and Dangal (both 2016), after Kollywood contributed to the bunch with Saala Khadoos (Sudha Kongara’s simultaneously produced Hindi version of her 2016 Tamil-Hindi film Irudhi Suttru), here comes one of the best Hindi sports films ever to be made: writer-director Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (The Brawler).
Mukkabaaz is not your everyday sports biopic. If Chak De! India – an outstanding precursor to this trend, released back in 2007 – put the spotlight on communalism, gender and government apathy in Indian hockey, Mukkabaaz red-flags multiple factors that hold back boxing talent: caste, class and the use of professional influence to settle petty personal vendettas.
Through the medium of sport, it provides a running commentary on the socio-political landscape of Bareilly and – despite its cultural specificities – India at large, all wrapped around an endearing romance. The tensions in the protagonists’ lives are so unrelenting and so believable, that I found myself often on the edge of my theatre seat, as if watching a thriller. This is one of the most intensely dramatic Hindi films seen in a while.
Mukkabaaz revolves around a boxer in Bareilly called Shravan Kumar Singh who crosses swords with the local don of the boxing establishment, Bhagwan Das Mishra, while simultaneously entering into a romantic relationship with Bhagwan’s niece Sunaina. Bhagwan sets out to ruin Shravan’s career and to terrorise Sunaina’s parents into separating them.
What he does not account for are Sunaina’s spirit and Shravan’s resilience, which make them formidable both individually and together. Sunaina may be mute, but she is not one to be silenced by a society that in any case denies a woman a voice even if she suffers no such physical disability. Shravan may be exhausted from years of fighting the system Bhagwan represents, but he is not one to give up easily. Mukkabaaz is about his battle to become a state-level boxer and the couple’s joint battle against Bhagwan’s villainy.
Kashyap weaves a rich tapestry of emotions and politics in Mukkabaaz. The initial script co-written by Vineet Kumar Singh, who plays Shravan, was expanded into a screenplay by a large team that includes Kashyap himself. In the hands of lesser writers, the film may have come across as being contrived to pack in too many ‘issues’ and faking concern. Kashyap & Co, however, roll out their narrative with a burning conviction from which everything flows naturally.
Mukkabaaz, in any case, is not “about ‘issues’”, it is about two people and how they react to the curve balls thrown at them. Life, after all, does not play out in compartments. Misogyny, for instance, does not decide to give a mute woman a day’s break just because she is coping with hurdles related to her speech impairment that day. The film acknowledges that instead life rushes at us in multiple strands we must cope with simultaneously. The proprietorial attitude that men have towards women they love, beef terrorism, inter-caste romance, a cheeky inversion of the Bharat Mata Ki Jai slogan being chanted by violent nationalists dominating the current public discourse in India, Brahmin arrogance, Dalit oppression – you will find it all in Mukkabaaz and it all feels just right. At 155 minutes, the film is long, but the length too feels just right.
The immersive storytelling is bolstered by immersive camerawork and acting performances. Singh is staggeringly good as Shravan. Although he looks older and decidedly more mature than the under-30-year-old he is supposed to be in this film, in every other way – including his physique – he embodies his bruised and battered but-never-say-die character.
Debutant Zoya Hussain achieves the fine balance required to capture the mischief and fire that combine to make Sunaina. Ravi Kishan is so convincing and likeable as the coach who takes Shravan under his wing, that you have to wonder why Hindi cinema does not explore his talent more. To him is assigned the task of asking Shravan this most crucial of questions: you have to decide, do you want to become a mukkabaaz (brawler) or mukkebaaz (boxer)?
Jimmy Sheirgill is terrific, although he is saddled with a one-dimensional character. While watching Mukkabaaz, I assumed that his cloudy, bloodshot eyes were a result of fisticuffs from the past, but a stray tweet to a viewer from Kashyap that I happened to spot yesterday reveals that Bhagwan is suffering from glaucoma which, it seems, is a major side effect of steroid intake by sportspersons. This is where intricacy in cinema becomes delightful – when as a filmmaker you stay so true to your subject that you pay attention to minutiae most people would not be knowledgeable enough to appreciate.
The interactions between Shravan and Sunaina go off-key a couple of times when sappy music breaks the tone of the rest of the narrative, but these moments are too brief to overshadow the pleasurable mix of humour, tenderness and understanding that marks their relationship. I also love that Sunaina’s sign language is subtitled and thus given the respect it deserves.
Interesting use of music aside from those couple of maudlin passages, lively lyrics, intentionally rough-hewn production design, superlative editing by Team Kashyap regular Aarti Bajaj and Ankit Bidyadhar plus a humorous streak (epitomised by Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s guest appearance that harks back to a day when he was an unknown and this would not have been deemed a guest appearance), all combine to make Mukkabaaz thoroughly entertaining. Its politics and vocabulary make it a magnificent cinematic experience. The finale in the boxing ring is, to my mind, the film’s only contrivance, but I was too lost in its loveliness and courage by then to be put off.
Anurag Kashyap brings a wealth of insights into this tale of “Uttar Pradesh ka Mike Tyson”, the woman he loves, the system and social realities that are responsible for India’s embarrassing track record in international sports. The back-breaking, soul-crushing opposition Shravan faces reminded me in some ways of Tapan Sinha’s fabulous Ek Doctor Ki Maut. Unlike that film though, this one is not mellow at all. It is also, in the midst of Shravan’s tragedy, oddly uplifting.
A Hindi film that is unafraid to say what it has to say in this present repressive atmosphere is rare. This is fearless, energetic filmmaking at its best. What a great start to 2018.
Rating (out of five stars): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/MukkabaazTheMovie/