Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Zoya Hussain, Ravi Kishan, Jimmy Shergill
The film begins with a long, unbroken take. We see Shravan Kumar Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) walking with a fellow boxing aspirant to their coach’s house. Shravan, a purist, is amused by his friend’s pragmatic attitude. He mocks the man for using sport as a device to land a stable government job. “It’s because of people like you that Uttar Pradesh never produces any Olympians,” he semi-jokes, before declaring his own lofty ambitions of being Bareilly’s very own Mike Tyson. And minutes later, Shravan unknowingly embarks on a chaotic journey that rapidly turns his talent – professional boxing – into a device for him. He falls in love with a mute upper-caste girl (a riveting Zoya Hussain, as Sunaina), and every punch he lands thereafter becomes part of a bigger battle to “earn” her hand in marriage.
Shravan’s bouts with casteism, nationalism, nepotism, favourtism, cynicism, corruption, parental pressure and regional politics inform much of this film. Which is why this isn’t really a sports movie, but an “Indian sports” movie – a distinct genre of storytelling that must circle an entire culture in order to arrive at its competitive central theme.
He is effectively a struggling actor who must prove himself through bit roles in every film genre – wry small-town comedy, underdog sports biopic, gritty social-message drama, bleak anti-procedural thriller, ‘80s action potboiler – in order to secure that dream big-ticket-romance lead role. It’s perhaps a little poetic that a desperate “last man standing” sport like boxing serves as an outlet for Vineet Kumar Singh, an actor who has been around for a while without making much of a splash. As Shravan, he internalizes all those years and paints a remarkably furious portrait of a fighter torn between different brands of passion. By the end, he almost makes Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz a coming-of-age revenge saga – where, like many shackled countrymen, he is forced to exact vengeance on the circumstances of his own life.
When Shravan is advised early on by coach Sanjay Kumar (Ravi Kishan) to be a “Mukkebaaz” (boxer) instead of a Mukkabaaz (brawler), he soon realizes that he has to brawl with life so that he can box in the ring. His bouts with casteism, nationalism, nepotism, favourtism, cynicism, corruption, parental pressure and regional politics inform much of this film. Which is why this isn’t really a sports movie, but an “Indian sports” movie – a distinct genre of storytelling that must circle an entire culture in order to arrive at its competitive central theme.
While many mainstream films have made a hash out of this challenge, Mukkabaaz – while patchy and prone to “reacting” to its commercial predecessors – is novel for how it commits to its vast foreground. While there’s not as much boxing action as one would expect – the (extremely well choreographed) State and National Championships highlighting the protagonist’s do-or-die phases – it isn’t quite relegated to the background either. The sport, as well as Shravan’s dramatic Tigmanshu-Dhulia-ish life graph, alternates between one another as full-blown films on their own; there are no half-baked subplots and secondary motifs.
This might be Kashyap’s signature – his ambition to pack in as much “time” and framework as possible to cover all bases. But this is also a bit of a weakness. There’s an excitable greed to lavish us with so much detail and character development that many scenes barely have time to follow through on their impact. His films are conventionally long (Mukkabaaz runs at almost two-and-a-half hours), but consistently seem short – curt even – for the kind of world-building Kashyap excels at.
Many might pass this off this hurried look as a “stylistic” trademark – something like, say, the abrupt and deliberately disorienting shot-taking of Martin Scorsese’s extensive gangster films – but films like these, with an emotional against-all-odds core, are inclined to thrive on a little introspection.
Shravan’s journey is constantly on the move, yes, and breathless and energetic for most part. And some of this franticness works, especially when he struggles to find a balance between his duties (domestic duties, railways job) and his boxing practice; he becomes the weary, frustrated protagonist of two separate but simultaneous films here. That each scene seems unconnected to the previous one is more a testament to Shravan’s exhaustive compartmentalizing than the maker’s brisk vision. But when one looks back at this film, one that curiously adopts the pace of Gangs of Wasseypur’s multiple universes, Shravan’s story feels like a blurry montage instead of an elaborate collection of moments. A few frenzied monologues and colourful phrases aside, it’s hard to associate any more “feeling” than that of an adrenalin rush to a film that is visibly keen to bridge numerous genre-divides.
Perhaps this was Kashyap’s intention, which, to be fair, he doesn’t shy away from demonstrating. For example, there’s a scene in which the boxer’s disapproving father is seen smiling in the crowd during a crucial match. Most Hindi films build up to this point with great fanfare, loudly pinpointing this approval as the ultimate redemption for an Indian child. But Kashyap whizzes past it, with just a fleeting reconciliatory hug before moving onto bigger things – like quasi-hinterland life-and-death payoffs. It’s not that there isn’t time to linger, but he has chosen his narrative’s priority – which might not work on an execution level, but ends up serving the premise in a strangely optimistic way.
In fact, Shravan is easily the filmmaker’s most “hopeful” protagonist so far. The villain, “bad coach” Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill) – an ominous cross between an Aanand L. Rai patriarch and a Tigmanshu Dhulia landlord – is more of a typical Kashyap nihilist. When they face off against each other, it’s like two of the director’s languages – old and new – are doing battle to come out on top. But it’s never as simple as winning, just as it has never been easy to identify good from bad in his filmography. All-out victory is a bit too much, in a country like this, for a storyteller whose struggles – and resulting independence – have informed his cinematic skepticism. Someone as orthodox as Shravan is unorthodox, almost a daring experiment (the excessive reliance on songs, for example, feels awkward), for Anurag Kashyap.
Which is why, maybe the film’s biggest achievement is the illusion of positivity it evokes. In context of a film – titled “Mukkabaaz” – it might seem like a fiercely personal triumph. But in context of a nation – change its title to “Mukkebaaz” – it is a resounding tragedy. For every time this country gains a fighter, it loses a world-class athlete. A letter – and not three words as is often the case – is all it takes. Perspective is a powerful tool for viewers. And it can be appreciated that here is a film that changes according to how, and not why, we watch it.