Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Zoya Hussain, Jimmy Shergill
In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, the ghosts of Kashyap’s past lurk and show their heads at peculiar times. Mukkabaaz, a film about a boxer and about boxing as a metaphor, is probably his least violent film. Gratuitous violence is a minute or two away but the Kashyap of Mukkabaaz is more interested in the process of getting there (and the caste violence that is more social than physical). Two scenes, very similarly structured, come to mind. One is when Sunaina (Zoya Hussain) and her family are forced to take a detour to an ancestral house.
A whiff of threat and the stench of tragedy is built up beautifully, where we dread what’s coming because we know it’s coming. The other is a callback to the very first scene, the coach and the student, both souls brought together by common experience of neglect, bond and there’s always the sense of something terrible about to happen. These are two moments where we see the Kashyap we know flexing his regular muscles but in other parts of the film, just as good, it is a fresher version, working within his strengths but still willing to experiment with form.
The build-ups are an important part of Mukkabaaz. The very first scene we are introduced to Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) in, is a medium long tracking shot, with conversations about wheat, flour, vegetables, and the struggles of an Indian sportsperson interspersed with talk of the previous night’s beef lynching. Once again — or rather this is the first time we see it — a somewhat serene, uneventful scene is about to lead to violence while telling us a lot about the people involved - here we learn what a loose cannon Shravan can be and that he speaks truth even in the face of absolute death. Kashyap fills the frames in other parts of the film with montages and vignettes.
Mukkabaaz is more musical than anything he’s done before, and it is also the first time he is venturing into star-crossed romance. It may appear as a sports film, a boxing film, but Mukkabaaz really is an intense relationship drama, a romance — almost a quasi-Romeo-Juliet — that will not bow down to disability or politics or caste. The music, therefore, aids both the threads of the film - in the romantic thread it becomes essential for Zoya, who is speech-impaired, and it also helps in establishing Shravan’s boxing struggles, that feeds into his personal life.
Mukkabaaz may be on the nose about its caste aspects — compared to subtle surgical treatment in smaller/indie films — but it probably stems from the location it is set in — Uttar Pradesh — where people’s social status walks into the room before they do. The film also makes note of caste’s hierarchical nature — while a Dalit coach (Ravi Kishan as Sanjay Kumar) is mistreated by a more privileged counterpart (Jimmy Shergill as Bhagwan Das Mishra), Shravan, who is Rajput and is in the line of Bhagwan Das’s fire, keeps harping on about pride during his bouts. It may not be a coincidence that the only likable upper-caste character in the film is speech-impaired, and she treats Shravan like she would any other person. The Banaras and Bareilly milieu are more familiar territory for Kashyap and he makes no mistakes there, and with Anand L Rai too involved in the production, that is one department the two of them are more astute in than any other creator in the industry.
Kashyap uses a lot of foreshadowing and his more montage-oriented approach here gives him the freedom to show events and then explain them later. We see a wedding already and later get the conversation about how it came to be. We see Sunaina’s parents in Shravan’s house and only later we get the events explained. An ancestral house is mentioned nonchalantly in an early scene and the house itself makes a grand appearance. A neighbour’s habit of sending meat dishes over is casually mentioned and later becomes the point of farce. Mukkabaaz begins with its version of an event we’ve heard about in the country all too often in the last few years and it ends with the sarcastic proclamation of a slogan, again something we’ve heard all too often, unironically, in the last few years. Strangely, it feels more organic than it appears to be.