Mary Kom opens with a note that says this is “based on” the boxer’s story, so we know we’re in not for the truth but for a version of the truth, shaped by the expediencies of drama. And then, we are plunged into drama. We are in Imphal. Mary (Priyanka) is in labour, and her husband Onler (Darshan Kumar) is escorting her to the hospital. And everything that can go wrong goes wrong. It’s raining. There’s a curfew. Men with torches are setting the streets on fire. When Onler discovers an abandoned rickshaw and tries to break the chain that tethers it, cops show up and begin to beat him, thinking he’s a troublemaker… If you are cynical, like Birdie in All About Eve, then you’ll be rolling your eyes, saying what she said: “What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.”
There are essentially two ways to tell a story, a boxing story. One is to dive deep, into the character, into the psychology, the way Martin Scorsese did in Raging Bull. The other is to stay resolutely on the surface and just narrate a series of life events, like Rocky. Omung Kumar, the director, opts for the latter approach – action takes precedence over thought, and through this action we get hints about what the characters must be thinking. Mary’s motivations are presented to us through mirror events: she removes the trophies and medals she’s won/she replaces those trophies and medals; fans hound her for autographs/she’s on a bus where the man opposite her speaks of Mary Kom but doesn’t realise that she’s sitting right there, and her autograph becomes a way of re-establishing her effaced identity; the scuzzy manager of a street fight, on learning that she wants to participate, sneers that this isn’t a kitchen/after becoming a famous boxer, while being interviewed by a journalist, we see Mary in the kitchen and learn that she’s a great cook as well; while in difficult labour in the hospital, she thinks of her time in the ring/while in the ring, she thinks of her child in the hospital.
In other words, this is melodrama – not merely melodramatic, simply because the events are staged at a high pitch, but fashioned in the style of a melodrama and played (mostly) at an even keel, and my favourite scene came when Mary’s match is being televised, and her father (Robin Das) refuses to watch. He’s always been opposed to her passion for boxing (or boa-xing, as Chopra pronounces it). When Mary, as a young girl, finds a pair of gloves, he says, “Yeh ladkiyon ka khilona nahin hai,” and when she persists, he asks, “Tera naak muh toot gaya to tere se shaadi kaun karega?” This former wrestler (or race-ler) looks at her as a girl, a woman, and he cannot bring himself to applaud her achievements. In a different kind of movie, we may have been shown why – maybe, in a small way, he resents her international fame when his exploits in his sport were confined to a small village in a small state. But when people gather around the television set and cheer for Mary, his stubbornness gives way to excitement and perhaps even pride. She seems to be in a bit of a pickle. He yells at the TV screen, “Maar use.” As if hearing him, she lands a punch. She wins. Father weeps on this side of the TV screen. Daughter weeps on the other side. And as she looks at the TV cameras, she seems to be looking at him. A public moment becomes an intensely personal one. It’s no surprise that the film comes from the house of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who is also credited as creative director. No other filmmaker, today, is as attuned to the nuances of melodrama.
The film sets Mary up against a line of men who become obstacles – and in true crowd-pleasing style, they all realise their “mistake” and fall at her feet, in a manner of speaking. There’s, of course, the father, who eventually asks for her forgiveness. Then there’s “Coach Sir” (Sunil Thapa; with his white whiskers, he reminded me of the gruff, wise trainers in the Shaolin movies), who refuses to take Mary’s ambition seriously, and later, when she decides to marry Onler, he warns her that she’s throwing her life away – and he too, eventually, comes around, strapping her twin infants to her back and announcing that motherhood has made her stronger. Then we have Sharmaji (Shakti Sinha), the corrupt official from the boxing federation who can make and break careers on a whim. He humiliates Mary, but by the end, he’s on his feet, cheering for her in a comeback match on the world stage.
You’d think that Mary, in her low moments, would have a female BFF to confide in – but no. So bent is the film on showcasing the hurdles in her life that even Mary’s supportive mother – who, again, in a different film, would have had more to do; it isn’t everyday that a farmer’s wife ends up supporting her daughter’s dreams of making it in a brutal, bloody sport – is shoved to the sidelines. Mary Kom isn’t just about Mary versus her opponents inside the ring; it’s also about this woman who prevailed over the many men who stood in her way.
And that’s why Onler comes across as such a surprise. He’s effectively the martyr-heroine of a 1960s melodrama, looking after home and hearth while the “hero” goes out and does his thing, making sacrifices for the greater good. He takes care of the children, he massages Mary’s back after a training session, and he tells her something I’ve heard no male character on screen tell his wife: “Apne baare mein socho.” He has assumed the role she’d play in a traditional Manipuri (or Indian) household, and he’s telling her to think about herself – not about him, not about the babies. And Mary is the film’s “masculine” presence. She’s stubborn. She flies off the handle. She’s not easily intimidated, not even by emotional blackmail. (Her father asks her to choose between him and boxing; she chooses boxing.) When Onler gives her a lift at night – it’s their first meeting – and his bike breaks down in a deserted spot, she tells him, “Don’t worry. Tu mere saath safe hai.” The line gets a laugh, but it also shows us how Mary never really thinks of herself as the “woman” in any situation. She even gets to participate in an amusing reversal of the scene where the wife is bathing and the husband knocks for some reason and ends up ogling at her nudity. Here, Onler is inside, and when he opens the door, Mary remarks that the water is probably cold. But this isn’t to say that her “feminine” side is neglected. She sings a lullaby for her children, and in that scene in the kitchen, she tells the journalist, “Mere haath ka khaake dekho.” Again, we laugh at the double meaning, but it tells us that this woman was comfortable enacting the traditionally accepted roles of both women and men.
Mary Kom doesn’t strive for greatness, and you always know what’s coming, but it’s eminently watchable. It doesn’t make the mistake that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag did – it doesn’t try to transcend the material, do a Raging Bull on a Rocky, which usually ends up looking ridiculous in the Bollywood context. It’s content being a generic Rocky clone, and though the against-all-odds arc is old, the newness comes from the fact that this is the story of a woman, that this is a big Bollywood movie about a woman, that she is a sportsperson, and the sport isn’t cricket, and the place isn’t someplace we usually see. In the first scene, a legend on screen informs us that this is Imphal (Manipur) – when was the last time you saw a film that felt the need to tell us that the events were set in “Mumbai (Maharashtra)”?
The first half moves as fast as Mary’s punches. The director knows that this is a familiar story, so he doesn’t linger on scenes. One moment, Mary marries Onler. The next, she’s pregnant. Another time transition happens “Two years later.” But when the film stops to linger, it’s less successful. The Sharmaji character, who’s here to represent the evil bureaucracy, deserved, at most, a scene or two – but he keeps popping up to make Mary’s life miserable and he quickly becomes unbearable, a one-note villain in a movie whose heroine is already battling bigger villains like motherhood and hulking German boxers. Some scenes, like the one where Mary shaves her head, don’t make much sense, and some of the product placement (especially the “Iodex” line) is truly hideous. And at the climax, the film stops being a melodrama and becomes over-the-top melodramatic, which, given the relative “realism” earlier, is shockingly out of place. But Priyanka Chopra keeps us watching. She doesn’t look like Mary, but she looks the part. She’s done something to her eyebrows. There’s a dusting of freckles on her cheeks. She seems to have lost weight and trained – she looks like she could be doing these things inside the ring. Acting-wise, she doesn’t do anything she hasn’t done earlier, and her eyes keep pooling with tears too often, but this is what the film asks of her. There’s little point trying to be Robert De Niro when all you’re required to be is Sylvester Stallone.
* Mary Kom = see here
* the All About Eve scene = see here
* melodrama = see here
* “Yeh ladkiyon ka khilona nahin hai” = This isn’t a plaything for girls.
* “Tera naak muh toot gaya to tere se shaadi kaun karega?” = Who’ll marry a girl with a battered face?
* Shaolin movies = see here
* “Mere haath ka khaake dekho” = refers to food… also to punches
* martyr-heroine = see here
* Tu mere saath safe hai = You’re safe with me.
* Bhaag Milkha Bhaag = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.