Director: Srijit Mukherji
Writer: Priya Aven
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Vijay Raaz, Anushree Kushwaha, Inayat Verma, Kasturi Jagnam, Mumtaz Sorcar, Shilpi Marwaha
Yesterday, former captain of the Indian women's cricket team Mithali Raj did a question-and-answer session on Twitter in which she was asked, "Who inspires you and why?" Surprisingly, Raj did not mention a childhood friend named Noori in her answer. I say 'surprisingly' because Noori is a key figure in Shabaash Mithu, which is allegedly a biopic based on Raj's life. In Shabaash Mithu, Noori is the one who, at age eight, introduces a munchkin-sized Mithali (played by Inayat Verma) to cricket. Decades later, when a grown-up Mithali (Taapsee Pannu) has given up on the game out of frustration, it's Noori who inspires her to return to cricket and lead the Indian team at the 2017 Women's Cricket World Cup. Yet the real-life Raj has never mentioned Noori in her interviews. Practically every article about Raj will tell you her father was the one who introduced her to cricket and the person who helped her realise her talent was her coach, Sampath Kumar. It seems as though Raj's father's role gets a significant downgrade in Shabaash Mithu so that Noori can shine.
A Bollywood biopic is not a documentary and no one should raise eyebrows at make-believe masala being added to facts in order to lend some cinematic flair to regular life. The problem with Shabaash Mithu is that writer Priya Aven and director Srijit Mukherji have introduced fictional elements that turn Raj's eventful life into a dreary and monotonous story. A cursory glance at Raj's profile — thank you Wikipedia — tells you why she deserves a movie to be made on her. Raj became a cricketer at a time when women's cricket was languishing in obscurity (even more so than now). Despite criminal neglect from the state, cricket boards and fans, women cricketers like Raj and Jhulan Goswami established the Indian team internationally and their achievements raised the team's profile. Raj was a prolific run scorer and as captain, she led the team to two World Cup finals. In 2018, she became the first Indian cricketer (male or female) to score 2,000 runs in the Twenty20 International (T20I) format. (Keep in mind that the women's cricket team plays far fewer matches than their male counterparts.) Not just that, Raj has had her share of controversies — like when coach Ramesh Powar accused Raj of chasing her own milestones and Raj responded with allegations that the coach had deliberately sidelined her. There is even a story about intergenerational rivalry — a traditional favourite in sports biopics — in the relationship between Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur, the current captain of India's women's national cricket team. What more could you ask for in a biopic?
The answer is schmaltz, according to Aven and Mukherji. And so we get the Noori story, which is presumably meant as an ode to India's religious diversity, but only serves to cement stereotypes about Muslim women being oppressed. A young Mithali is shown finding the key to playing cricket through tips she got during Bharatnatyam lessons. Even within the world of Shabaash Mithu its difficult to stomach, as is obvious from the resting bitch face that Mithu's coach (played by Vijay Raaz) delivers. There is a slurry of regrettable scenes that show women cricketers trying to tear one another down (in one instance, the cricket match descends into a catfight and in another, 'ragging' involves not letting Raj take painkillers for her menstrual cramps). Writing friendships, particularly between women's characters, remains a challenge for Indian commercial cinema. When the women cricketers are sent discarded men's jerseys as uniforms by a dismissive and sexist cricket board, the women have to pull off a power move. And so they literally pull it off — one after the other, the players take off the offending jersey to reveal another one that has been designed for them, with their names. The first time a jersey move is pulled off, it might pass as dramatic, but spare a thought for the 12th person who has to repeat that ridiculous action.
The script of Shabaash Mithu is clumsy and it's made worse by the editing and direction. For instance, there's a scene in which we see a teenaged Mithali hit one magnificent shot after another during a crucial match. Intercut with the cricketing moments are fleeting shots of Noori in wedding finery. While Raj strikes boundaries, Noori says "qubool hai (I accept)". Why? Because Raj is wedded to cricket like Noori is to her husband. This is what passes for subtlety in Aven's script and Mukherji's directorial vision.
Even though there are other cricketers referenced in Shabaash Mithu, the only one who gets the spotlight is Mithali, but we get little sense of either her personality or even her achievements. She starts off as gifted and ends as gifted, unruffled by either self-doubt or growth. Pannu as Mithali spends much of her screen time looking perplexed and sad — unwittingly reflecting this reviewer's state of mind while watching Shabaash Mithu — trapped in a character that is static and flat. Barring an occasional use of kohl and changes in her complexion, there's nothing in either body language or appearance to indicate Mithali is growing from a teenager into a woman in her 30s. Shabaash Mithu gives the impression that it's covering just a handful of years instead of more than two decades of a sportsperson's evolution into greatness. (If you want a masterclass in how ageing and evolution can be shown through good writing and brilliant acting, watch the K-drama Twenty-Five Twenty-One, in which Kim Tae-ri plays a fencing champion.)
One of the most bizarre scenes in Shabaash Mithu is one in which Mithali identifies the strongest of her teammates by remembering what her coach told her about their backgrounds. Unlike Mithali, who comes from an upper middle-class family, the other cricketers have had difficult, unprivileged lives, we're told. However, perhaps because a picture is worth 1,000 words, Mukherji shows us each of the women in what the director imagines is their home setting. So we have Mithali and the team standing on a cricket field, waiting to start a match, when Mithali hallucinates one of her teammates standing against the backdrop of drying Bombay duck; another is in a tannery; a third is in a metal workshop; and a fictionalised Jhulan Goswami (Mumtaz Sorcar as Jharna Ghosh) starts her run-up in a chai stall.
Perhaps the worst part of Shabaash Mithu is that it makes women's cricket seem boring and women cricketers uncouth. Mithali, with her zen calm, comes across as an exception in a sports scene peopled with spiteful, superficial and egoistical characters. Despite stretching across an interminable 162 minutes, there's nothing in the film that gives you a sense of what makes these players special or why their demand that they be considered equal to their male counterparts is justified. The re-enactments of the matches have none of the tension that makes limited-overs cricket so entertaining. Instead, they become repetitive loops of scuttling balls and beaming players. Shabaash Mithu should have made us curious about women's cricket and its champions. Instead, both the game and its players come across as forgettable.