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The sweet science of ‘Mukkabaaz’

LiveMint logoLiveMint 18-09-2017 Pahull Bains

Anurag Kashyap’s boxing movie isn’t just about boxing. At least not in the grand tradition of boxing movies, from Rocky to Million Dollar Baby, in which the fulcrum of the story is an underdog boxer’s fight for a rightful place in the ring. Although that is the broad arc at the heart of Mukkabaaz, there are strong sociopolitical undercurrents that are impossible to ignore. References to the broken and corrupt Indian sporting system, the caste hierarchies that continue to dictate rural discourse, and Hindutva-led cow vigilantism add layers of complexity, lifting the narrative above and beyond a tried-and-tested trajectory.

“As a filmmaker, there are a lot of things I want to say,” said Kashyap, after the world premiere of his film at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. “Through this larger-than-life story we were trying to address social and political issues. But I didn’t want to fight the censors, so I had to figure out how to say everything I wanted to say and yet keep it safe (from censorship).”

The tendency of filmmakers to use their art to send a message is nothing new, but the political climate around the world seems to be accelerating the rate of this collective creative response. It’s a theme running through many of the films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year, which is why nearly every press conference involves a question of the “tell us about the significance of your film in these troubled times” variety.

Director Hansal Mehta briefly appeared before the audience in advance of the screening of his film Omerta, about terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh, to say: “This film might be uneasy to watch. But it’s important to confront uneasy truths in the times we live in.”

George Clooney’s dark comedy Suburbicon is another film about uneasy truths, telling a tale of a white family caught up in murder, deception and depravity in 1950s suburban America, while the innocent black family next door becomes the repeated target of the town’s ire. This meditation on racial prejudices and misdirected anger is extremely relevant today.

“We’d seen some things on the campaign trail where they were talking about building fences, and scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims, and we’re reminded that these aren’t new things and new moments in our history,” Clooney told reporters at TIFF. “So we thought it would be interesting to talk about it, but we wanted the film to be entertaining, not a documentary—we didn’t want it to be an eat-your-spinach piece of filmmaking.”

This description could just as easily apply to Kashyap’s latest work. At the outset of the film, Shravan Kumar, a lower-caste boxer, upsets the very last person whose bad side you want to be on if you live in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, where the film is set—the unofficial don of the village, and the top boxing promoter in the region. (Lest you fail to grasp the scope of his power, he’s referred to as Bhagwan Ji.) To complicate matters, Kumar falls in love with Bhagwan Ji’s niece Sunaina, and is determined to marry her. But he needs an honest, well-to-do job first, and the only way he can land the holy grail—a sarkaari naukri (government job)—is through the sports quota. But Bhagwan Ji’s got it out for him, making it his mission to thwart Kumar’s every attempt to make it to the National Boxing Championship. The film follows Kumar’s struggles and setbacks, which take on different forms and shapes through the course of the film.

The idea for the film, interestingly, came from Vineet Kumar Singh, the actor who portrays Shravan with a raw, natural ease and endearing affability.

“I used to play basketball myself,” says Singh. “I’ve seen lots of great players, across different sports, who for some reason or another haven’t been able to get ahead. Through no fault of their own—it’s the fault of the system. And their situation is such that they struggle even for survival. I’ve seen lots of stories like this, which stayed with me over the years. I wrote this film because I wanted to play this character and I knew the only way to do that is by writing it myself.”

Eventually, the script found its way to Kashyap, whom Singh has worked with on several films in the past, including Gangs of Wasseypur and Ugly.

“There have been a lot of biopics but few are honest,” says Kashyap of sports films in India. “(They) tend to give it a patriotic flavour. But if you look at the Olympics or Asian Games or any of the international sporting events, we’re always at the bottom of the tally, which is what drove me to make this film. The sports system in India has never created a single sportsman. It’s all through the passion of the family or a coach.”

Mukkabaaz’s depiction of the lamentable sporting system in India, which favours cricket above all else, is pieced together through extensive research and real-life accounts of sportspersons. “Their stories were something else,” Kashyap says. He also wove into the story layers that addressed issues like casteism and nationalism, to flesh out Singh’s basic narrative.

“It’s not a story of one man, it’s a story of a situation,” says Zoya Hussain, who plays Sunaina. “That’s why the film touches upon so many things in that socioeconomic background apart from sport and the love story.”

Hussain, who makes a powerful feature debut in this film, plays a headstrong character with big dreams, who happens to be mute. (To the writers’ credit, the romance between the protagonists is treated with realism, capturing the frustration and impatience of two people attempting to communicate rather than showing a cliché-filled love story about defying the barriers of language.) When asked what her initial reaction was when she learned her character would have no dialogue, she laughs. “I was very excited that I did not have to speak in the UP dialect actually. That would have been far more difficult for me to do than learning sign language.”

But creating a compelling character without a single line of dialogue is no easy feat, which is why Hussain spent several months mastering non-verbal language and crafting Sunaina’s mannerisms. “I didn’t want it to be a caricature of somebody speaking in sign language,” she says. “So there was a great deal of responsibility. And I wanted to make it my own. I wanted it to be subtle, more sensitive.”

While Hussain was engaged in learning how to communicate without sound, Singh was immersed in a rigorous training process which began a year before shooting. When Kashyap agreed to take on the film with Singh in the lead, he laid down one condition: that Singh had to become a boxer.

“So I packed everything up and moved to Patiala and began training,” he says. “I found it tough at first, very tough. I couldn’t see the punches. I was just taking a beating, nonstop, day after day. It was just blood, blood and blood. I broke some ribs. But eventually, I reached a point where my fists began to work. And I stopped being scared, and began fighting back. In the film, I spar with actual international-level boxers. There was no choreography. We’d hear ‘action’ and we would just start boxing.”

Singh’s performance in the film is a complex blend of strength and vulnerability, aggression and emotion. Speaking to him, it’s evident he’s poured his blood, sweat and tears—literally—into this film, which he still can’t believe is finally made.

“Hopefully, through this film, people will realize the reality of the situation,” he says. “Every time the Olympics roll around, the country expects medals to come our way. But they don’t know what the players are facing in day-to-day life. This film holds up a mirror to that sporting world and society.”

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