Director: Srijit Mukherji
Writer: Priya Aven
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Vijay Raaz, Richard Bhakti Klein, Anushree Kushwaha, Inayat Verma, Kasturi Jagnam, Mumtaz Sorcar, Shilpi Marwaha
If you know nothing about Mithali Raj, you are at the risk of knowing less than nothing after watching Shabaash Mithu. For a film about a remarkable woman who democratized the most popular male-dominated field in the country, Shabaash Mithu has regrettably little to say – except that she's a woman. For a sports biopic that runs for 162 minutes and spans three decades of a cricketer famous for her record-breaking longevity, Shabaash Mithu has tragically little to say – except that she's a woman. For a life story driven by the rare marriage of privilege and ambition, Shabaash Mithu has frustratingly little to say – except that…you know the drill.
The Mithali Raj in this movie isn't a person so much as a concept. Her journey is a vessel for a very facile, binary reading of womanhood and gender disparity. For instance, a 15-year-old Mithali playing Tendulkar-like shots in the national trials is juxtaposed against her (tomboyish) best friend's wedding vows. The girls in the national camp behave like crude boys to amplify the sight of Mithali battling menstrual cramps during a net session. On their way to an international match, Mithali and her teammates squat behind some bushes to relieve themselves before they see the hoarding of the men's cricket team looking down on them. When a disheartened Mithali quits cricket, her brooding is no regular brooding; she is seen cooking dosas, washing clothes, buying vegetables, donning a sari and meeting a prospective groom (named Subodh, of course). When she changes her mind, she gatecrashes a former teammate's wedding (London Thumakda plays in the background) to convince her to come out of retirement. And last but not least: On being saddled with the men's team kit due to budget constraints, Mithali and her mates scandalize an office of smug BCCI executives by defiantly peeling off these jerseys – only to reveal their own jerseys below. I spent the next hour admiring the trouble they took (two polyester layers in Mumbai weather) to stage such a dramatic moment.
The film-making, too, lacks empathy – it refuses to engage with the stillness of self-doubt. Like most Indian hagiographies posing as biopics, it interprets progress as narrative motion. There's not a single shot of Mithali Raj alone, thinking or simply being. Even when she's practicing late at night, it looks like a helmet commercial because the voice in her head is Rumi's poetry. It doesn't help that Amit Trivedi's soundtrack is painfully generic – it's almost impossible to tell a coming-of-age song from a motivational anthem from a patriotic ballad from a sad theme. The craft often goes out of its way to look pretentious. When Mithali discovers that her camp 'rivals' are tough nuts because of the impoverished settings they've emerged from, she visualizes each of them bowling to her from their "backyard" – the girl from a fishing family is seen starting her run-up in a fish market; the girl whose father is a blacksmith is seen sprinting through a space of metal tools. Then there's the Ram-Gopal-Varma-esque version of mental turmoil: The camera literally becomes the ball as it skids off the pitch towards Mithali's straight bat. Who needs 3D glasses anyway?
Many scenes are strangely conceived. At one point, Mithali argues with her captain in the dressing room, the manager intervenes, the debate subsides, the manager declares that Mithali has been appointed the new captain, and everyone celebrates while the ex-captain slinks away – all in the same breath. When her team sets a dismally low target against Pakistan in a World Cup game, a tipsy man in a bar rants about "women's empowerment" and orders the bartender to switch the channel to Fashion TV. But the moment that takes the cake by far features sports journalist Ayaz Memon asking Mithali Raj a question in a press conference, only to be followed by an abrasive British reporter named – wait for it – Richard Linklater. Flaunting your cinephilia is fine, but I refuse to trust the randomness of this flex. My only guess is that Linklater made Boyhood, which is (linguistically) an antidote to the…girlhood of Shabaash Mithu? Or maybe this film – in stark contrast to the 12-year shooting schedule of Boyhood – makes 24 years feel like 12 days?
Which brings me to the biggest problem in a biopic plagued with problems. Shabaash Mithu has absolutely no sense of time. For a film about an athlete whose superpower is durability, this is the last straw. Going by the film's rhythm, it looks like there's no more than two years between Mithali Raj's debut as a teenager in 1999 and her comeback to lead the team to the 2017 Women's World Cup final. Because every "phase" is denoted through a montage song – and because changing skin tones are the only cosmetic indication of time passing – it's tough to sense the spirit of Mithali Raj's journey. The plot conveniently leapfrogs 15 years of her career – including the run to the 2005 World Cup final (likely because the loss was heavy) – to arrive at the moment India woke up to women's cricket after their heartbreaking 2017 defeat. Even if one were to overlook the clumsiness with which the fictional Mithali Raj is woven into real World Cup footage, it's disorienting to hear "36 half centuries" and "legend" in a tournament that feels like her first. I'm all for editing, but not so extreme that it passes off as a memory-loss film. Taapsee Pannu's performance, too, suffers from this narrative jetlag. The physical and emotional toll of carving a career out of an invisible sport rarely shows. It never looks like Mithali Raj has lived a lot between her innings. The hollowness of the writing reduces her character to a series of attractive cover-drives.
I've always wanted to use the phrase "right off the bat" without sounding pompous, and there's no better context than a cricket film review. Maybe the moment has passed. I should have started with the phrase. But here goes anyway. Right off the bat, Shabaash Mithu descends into an unusually bland curation of a complex legacy. Right off the bat, the obviousness of this biopic is evident in the opening-credit collage of men playing cricket across the country. Right off the bat, the film understands precious little about its iconic protagonist – except that she's a woman.