“Mukkabaaz”… Love-story clichés and boxing-movie clichés, rousingly masala-fied and Kashyap-ised

Posted on January 18, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

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atching Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz is like watching Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat. Hearing the synopsis, one thinks: “Why is the director of Fandry wasting his time on such a boilerplate love story?” But the rewards are in the telling. The voice of a distinctive filmmaker is never more distinct than in a nothing story – the ultra-generic nature of the tale allows the teller to leave a stronger signature. I loved Mukkabaaz, but it took me a while to put a frame on it, to decide how to look at it. Kashyap’s reputation is so festooned with international art-house hosannas – screenings at Cannes! reviews in Variety! – that it’s easy to forget how rooted in Hindi cinema he is. Mukkabaaz is what you’d get if, say, the Mithun Chakraborthy-starring Boxer was remade by a real filmmaker, really interested in the masala tradition, and with very real concerns about the real world.

All of this is not so much explanation as a reminder (even to me) – for this isn’t the first time Kashyap is reinventing an archetypal tale with his innate… Kashyap-ness (and with his winking Kashyap-isms). This is, after all, the man who saw fresh possibilities in the Devdas story, and if the protagonist in that film swallowed a bus ticket, the heroine of this film is forced to spit out chewing gum by the priest solemnising her marriage. Nothing is sacred. Kashyap respects the classical masala mode – more about the echoes later – but his methods are his own. Like a hyper-bright kid in class who won’t stop raising his hand and asking, “Why?”, he questions the very nature of our mainstream storytelling.

The subversions begin at the beginning, with the depiction of a beef-lynching scenario. Later, Shravan Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh), our hero, sees a video recording of the horrifying event, but despite knowing the men behind the attack, he doesn’t act in a way we recognise as conventionally “heroic.” He doesn’t rise in revolt. You wonder, then, if Shravan could be the other kind of masala hero, one too cool to give a shit, but who – by interval time – grows a conscience and then rises in revolt. But this isn’t that either.

The reason for the revolt, when it arrives, isn’t grandly political. It’s personal. It has more to do with Shravan’s impatience, that he’s being forced to perform menial jobs in the Mishra household instead of participating in boxing competitions that will make him live up to the image of him he carries in his head: “Uttar Pradesh ka Mike Tyson.” Masala-movie heroes are mythic saviours, but Shravan is small, one of the crowd – he just happens to be starring in a story with mythic tropes. Kashyap, in other words, conflates the “normal” leading man of the Rocky-type boxing movie (“I want to beat the odds, fulfil my potential, realise my dream”) with the heroic hero of the desi masala movie (“I want to bring down the villain”).

The villain isn’t just Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill, with a glass eye; it’s tempting to reach for symbolism here, for this man, like any self-respecting antagonist, is blind to the world beyond his courtyard). As with something like Raging Bull, the boxing is a literalised metaphor for Shravan’s numerous struggles, both internal and external. He’s also fighting the corruption in the world of sports, the attendant nepotism, a romantic relationship that isn’t easy, the caste system (Bhagwan Das is a Brahmin, Shravan’s coach is a Dalit, and Shravan could either be a Rajput/Kshatriya or, as Bhagwan Das suspects, someone who’s faked a certificate), and even the cheerful over-plotting so often found in our masala narratives.

In a particularly fraught situation, Shravan promises his wife – Sunaina (a spirited Zoya Hussain) – that he’ll fix things, even though he does not know how. There’s a similar sense with Kashyap, that he’s making it up as he goes along. He seems to have a general sense of the big picture, but the way he gets at it isn’t through carefully calibrated plotting. If he can stop and stare at something interesting en route, during the extremely scenic drives he prefers, he will do that. Nothing, to him, is superfluous to the narrative. This “let’s crack open some moongphali and sit around the campfire” style of storytelling divides his fans, because some of them deem it beneath a filmmaker who’s one of our “auteurs.” But why not? One of the chief pleasures of Mukkabaaz is seeing an auteur take on the much-abused love story (again, think Sairat) and the much-abused boxing drama (“gusse ko [yawn!] apna hathyaar banaao”) and make the clichés seem rich and resonant again.

Kashyap keeps asking, “Why?” Why should these stories always be set amidst the posh Khannas and Malhotras? Why not go to UP, like a Nadiya Ke Paar did, where love letters are signed off with a “bharpoor prem sahit”? (Sadhana Singh, the heroine of Nadiya Ke Paar, plays the mother of this heroine.) Why not tide over a courtship – the flavourful portion between “love at first sight” and the stirrings of conflict – with nothing more than a “2 years later” note after the opening credits? Why not show how difficult getting the girl can be, but also how difficult things can be after marriage, when you have a burning ambition? Why not toss in another wrinkle, by making the heroine mute and have the hero struggle to understand her – and despite her muteness, why not layer a female voice over her feelings, during a virah number?

As in Sairat, we get the sense that non-mainstream filmmakers are perhaps better at working in songs that rise organically from characters and situations. After Shravan’s first “revolt” against Bhagwan Das, we hear a song that goes Hum pehle mukka nahin maare. This isn’t Gulzar-ian obfuscation. The words are as direct as they come, less lyric than sentence, but they hit hard – they are earned words. What we don’t know from the screenplay, we fill in from either newspaper headlines or older Hindi cinema – and Kashyap’s sensibilities ensure that the clichés are confined to the situation, not the picturisation. At every step, there’s colour and energy and every frame spills over with detail – whether it’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui hamming it up as an item boy, or when the inevitable training-montage number on the banks of the Ganges is spiced up with a break-dancer.

Note, also, how attuned these non-mainstream filmmakers are to masala-film structure. Early on in the film, Shravan locks eyes with Sunaina while getting beaten up in Bhagwan Das’s house. This scenario is repeated twice, inside the boxing arena – and these echoes both fulfil our expectations (looking at her in the audience makes him rise for another round; a classic cliché) and toy with them (what happens at the end, when we are primed for a win). The beef-lynching scene at the beginning sets up a crucial plot point in the second half, and also functions as retribution. (Shravan said nothing then; in a way, he’s paying for it now.) Another echo I enjoyed was when Shravan’s boss in the railways humiliates him by filming him (with a phone) doing peon-like errands, and Shravan retaliates with his own bit of filming. (There’s also an echo within this echo, of an earlier moment involving urination. Earlier, Shravan was powerless, at the receiving end. Now it’s the other way around.)

But unlike Bhagwan Das, Shravan’s boss isn’t a monster. He had to come up the ordinary way, by studying hard and competing with thousands of other (similar) candidates – and he resents this upstart who’s snuck in through the sports quota. (In a different film, Shravan’s boss could be the underdog.) The riffs on other “issues” – say, patriarchy – are more glancing, but even there, the character-writing makes a difference (say, the contrast between Sunaina’s cheerful mother and Bhagwan Das’s resigned wife). The patriarch, Bhagwan Das, doesn’t have many shades to him, but Jimmy Shergill makes him a man we want to see crushed. Some of the very funny lines take shots at him (“unki bidi mein tambaku nahin hai”; he’s impotent), but he’s no buffoon. Look at the scene where he bends to touch his sister-in-law’s feet, after she’s been bound and gagged by his men. Shergill makes the gesture seem like both habit and mockery.

And Sunaina is Kashyap’s way of saying, yet again, that strong women can be part of the male-centric masala universe. Sunaina is subjected to the usual battery of torture that falls on a woman who marries a man from a lower caste – they try to get her marriage annulled, and so forth – but her relationship with this man is fresh and feisty. “Hum takiya nahin hain,” she complains, when Shravan is too busy (and too exhausted) to do anything but fall asleep – but Kashyap is too wise to make this come from a place of “empowerment.” This is just a wife sulking. As with Shravan, it’s personal, not political. (Which is why the “Bharat Mata ki jai” posturing towards the end feels wrong. The politics that has remained a backdrop is suddenly shoved into our face. Maybe you could treat this as masala-flavoured hyperbole, but I found it a “statement” that was not built up to.)

But the actors make the missteps seem minor. Ravi Kishan is terrific as the coach, who gets to swear an oath right out of myth (it involves facial hair) – and his inherent likeability makes us feel even more for the plight that befalls him. Shree Dhar Dubey plays the loyal friend, and he gets a great Kashyap-ian scene that’s hinged on the word “doubtless.” (Plus, I loved how he always seems to have a tie on. He’s so hilariously… proper.) And Rajesh Tailang is wonderful as Shravan’s father. Their prickly relationship is another standard-issue masala trope (especially popular in Tamil cinema), but Kashyap resists the epiphanic reconciliation. There are other beats he hits hard; this one is handled with a soft touch. It’s just right.

Another soft touch: Despite the Ram-destroying-Raavan fury of the moment near the end – the film alludes to the epic at this point – this isn’t the end of the road. Seconds later, Shravan is in trouble again. The cyclic nature of his one-step-forward-two-steps-back predicaments is what grounds him, and the storytelling. Shravan may have a picture of Sylvester Stallone on his wall, but his life – his fight – is far more layered, and Vineet Kumar Singh takes us right into this man trying to punch his way out of his circumstances. In a scene set after a training session, he wrings his vest and produces enough perspiration to fill a bucket. Most boxing movies don’t go beyond the sweat on the face.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi