Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Rajesh Tailang, Jimmy Shergill, Shreedhar Dubey, Zoya Hussain
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Rating: Four stars
A boxing melodrama, Mukkabaaz refuses to be boxed. It is at its best when the gloves are off. It is then that he throws hooks well aimed at the unbridled brutalities of the villain: a ruthless custodian of the superior caste privilege that directs the boxing federation of the Bareilly district to his own whims and fancies and, by extension, to the toxic forces that the bully MLC and his henchmen represent.
“Hum Brahmin hain, aadesh dete hain (I am a brahmin, I make the decisions)”, reverberates at the end of the film, and by then we already know enough what this reprehensible man – Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill), an ex – boxer and now a coach of all kinds is about. Complete with a black mustache, eyes injected with blood and a propensity for ferocious violence, most of which, fortunately, takes place outside the camera, he is an embodiment of pure evil.
Subtlety is not the strength of the movie. Some parts are diverted to somewhat heavy hands. But that is exactly how it should be. The script, which is credited to six writers, including director Anurag Kashyap and lead actor Vineet Kumar Singh (both have their roots in Banaras), produces an animated and engaging film that is similar to a boxing match: with balls, No punches, full of action without stopping, and marked by ingenious footwork. A propelling musical score by Rachita Arora adds an extra layer of muscle to the film.
Mukkabaaz, based on a true story, is a vigorous, scandalous and joyful journey through the filth of caste, corruption and insensitivity. It defies expectations in many ways and avoids the shrill jingoism associated with Indian sports movies. The protagonist is not fighting under a flag nor people support him motivated by national pride. He is in the game simply to survive, and love. His only attempt is to get out of the misfortunes that his birth and position in life have filled him.
The hero, Shravan Kumar (Vineet Kumar Singh), barely educated, without money and of low social status, has reasons to hate the man who would be God. “Naam Bhagwan hone se koi bhagwan toh nahin ho jaata (The fact that his name is God does not make him god),” he says. And this after the young man has earned the wrath of boxing mandarin for life: not only refuses to carry out the orders of the latter, but also hits him in the face and leaves him with a bloody nose.
Mukkabaaz, in his attitude towards the oppression of caste and the vigilantism of the cows, is so combustible and provocative. The film, in fact, opens with a sequence in which two cow dealers are pulverized by a crowd that sings Bharat Mata Ki Jai, while the atrocious act is recorded on a mobile phone.
The attackers are the boys of Bhagwanji, a group of would-be boxers disguised as impunity as a lynching squad. Therefore, there is clearly more meat for the cunning subversive Mukkabaaz than the intense duels and violent skirmishes that take place inside and outside the boxing ring. It is the first Bollywood film that dares to denounce the depredations of the so-called gau rakshaks.
Mukkabaaz presents his policy in a construction that, at first glance, could be described as a sports film, love story and family drama, all in one. The first, of course, focuses on the personal struggles of the hero to stay in shape and fight to pursue his dream despite the odds against which he faces.
The second depends on the brave Sunaina (the debutante Zoya Hussain), the silent niece of Bhagwan Das, who uses a combination of sign language and mobile text messages to communicate with Shravan, who loves her to distraction. She exchanges because she sees in man the promise of a ticket to the freedom of the suffocating environment in which she lives.
The third component of the narrative is based entirely on the activities of Bhagwan Das, whose writing is indisputable about the shy father of Sunaina, who is 12 years older than his brother, but completely at his mercy.
The enmity with Bhagwan Das costs Shravan dearly. The latter is repeatedly mistreated up to an inch of his life by Bhagwanji’s henchmen. During one of these assaults, directed to a boxing trainer Dalit suspected of cooking meat at home, he receives a blow to the head while the first one goes into a coma.
Shravan finds comfort in his unconditional love for Sunaina. But her life-affirming relationship with the energetic girl becomes an important red rag for Bhagwan Das. Reduce your efforts to thwart Shravan’s progress in the boxing arena.
And when Shravan and Sunaina finally unite in marriage with the acquiescence of the father of the latter, Bhagwan Das is beside himself with rage. Seeing his plans to use the girl as a bait for a lucrative boxing tournament sponsorship contract with a brand ironically called Bedaag Detergent that turns into smoke, the villain releases a reign of terror.
Shravan moves to Banaras and finds a new coach. Sanjay Kumar (Ravi Kishan) is exactly the opposite of Bhagwan Das. He is a Dalit to boot. In a wonderfully written scene, Sanjay gets into a total verbal duel with Bhagwan Das and comes out with his head held high. His influence on Shravan is instantaneous and healthy: after winning a state championship, getting the best out of the boys from his former mentor, Shravan gets a sports quota job with the Railways of India. But the indignities show no signs of ending.
If Mukkabaaz is no less than fascinating, much of the merit must be the thoroughbred performance of Vineet Kumar Singh in her first leading role. While he looks and acts like a warlike pugilist, he handles the softer scenes, too, with ease and conviction.
The immediate arrest of Zoya Hussain, who obviously has no expression lines to deliver, is an absolute pleasure to watch. Like the girl who does not have a voice but who has a mind of her own, she uses her face, eyes and gestures of body and finger to record a character of impressive depth. The always reliable Jimmy Shergill, despite the lack of nuances in the role he rehearses, is at the top of his game.
Mukkabaaz has a massive blow. Watch it because it is one of the most important films that have left the film industry in Mumbai in recent times.