To begin with, Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz can hardly be called a sports film, if one goes by the classic definition of the genre. The film deals with a boxer in Uttar Pradesh; but both the state of UP as well as the boxing ring turn out to be sites of larger conflict which the film is clearly more invested in. What truly sets it apart from conventional sports films or the usual output from mainstream Bollywood is its sense of immediacy regarding its social and political concerns.
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Mukkabaaz follows a headstrong and impulsive boxer called Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) who belongs to the low caste in the town of Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. The plot takes off when he gets smitten by Sunayna (Zoya Hussain), a Brahmin girl. More importantly, when we come to know that the girl’s uncle Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill) is the district coach with powerful political connections. An act of defiance on Shravan’s part results in a series of bitter conflicts with Bhagwan Das, leading to violent ramifications.
The film flaunts a no-holds-barred attitude when it comes to the head on handling of various social and political issues which are literally making headlines in the country, mostly after the formation of BJP governments in the centre as well as the state of Uttar Pradesh. The opening scene itself evokes disturbingly fresh memories as a couple of Muslim men are tied up and beaten up by a gang of cow vigilantes (their chants of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ has been muted by the censors). The very next scene reveals the goons to be fighters training under Bhagwan Das, who almost lives and breathes the diktats of patriarchy and casteism. He treats the women in his family like property, goes around rabble-rousing in the name of nationalism and treats his trainees like slaves. He is furthermore located in an almost epicentre of power networks including the bureaucracy and the police force. Given the fact that this villainous character is a Brahmin called Bhagwan (God), hardly leaves any room for subtlety. But what the film sees to lack in subtlety, it makes up in honesty.
There is also an interesting narrative structure at play here, with two parallel plotlines of romance and boxing, which belong to two distinct genres, which are even treated differently on a formal level. The elaborate sequence towards the beginning where Shravan sees Sunayna for the first time and ends up crossing swords with her uncle, is an interesting instance where both these styles are at play. The exchange of words and blows between Shravan and Bhagwan are mostly done in hand held camera movements, often in long takes giving an edgy, documentary like charge to the scene. However, the wordless exchange between Shravan and Sunayna, followed by Sunayna climbing up the roof to follow his antics, seem to follow the standard shot-counter shot/slow motion techniques which are among the most familiar idioms in Bollywood romance films. Interestingly, the romance strand of the narrative almost finds a closure with the characters getting married. But the way in which the plotline is followed up, almost functions as a reservoir of certain excesses (emotions, articulations), which is manifested in the training clubs, gyms and boxing rings. It is almost as if the feudal prohibitions on the romance, supply the necessary force, strength and determination to land a well-aimed uppercut into the system’s midsection.
It is not to say that the film is without its drawbacks and they primarily appear in parts of post-interval session where the film tends to lose its focus and rhythm at times. The brevity and wit which mark the dialogue in the film seem to be slightly inconsistent in the overall writing. However, the cinematography as well as sound design provide an interesting blend of stylized and yet authentic texture to the entire narrative. The swift camera movements and the sound of punches landing on the body are worth a special mention which create an extremely subjective experience during the boxing scenes. And as with any other Anurag Kashyap film, the performances, both by the lead as well as even the minor supporting actors, are an absolute delight to watch.
Looking back on his oeuvre, Kashyap has certainly made better films in terms of narration, form, technicalities or even sheer content. But Mukkabaaz would stand out because it is an emergency response to a dark time, from a conscientious filmmaker working within the domain of mainstream Bollywood cinema. Since the 70s, when Amitabh Bachchan in his angry-young-man avatar took on the system in a string of films, there has hardly been a film this effective, addressing the collective anger or despair within the framework of popular cinema. After all, there is an immense pleasure in watching a Dalit boxer showering a series of hooks on a Brahmin called Bhagwan!