'Shabaash Mithu' film review: How not to make a biopic

Srijit Mukherji’s film Shabaash Mithu on cricketer Mithali Raj takes the stuff out of the legend, leaving us with a vague, one-dimensional hero.
A still from 'Shabaash Mithu'.
A still from 'Shabaash Mithu'.

You’d be forgiven for scrolling Wikipedia before entering a show of Shabaash Mithu. Mithali Raj—one of India’s fiercest, most accomplished batters—is a name everyone is familiar with, yet not the specifics of her story. A biopic on her life, thus, has the ripe opportunity to fill us in on the details, joining the necessary dots that took a young girl from Secunderabad to 232 ODIs, 89 T20I matches, and six World Cups. It’s the stuff, as they say, of legends.

Unfortunately, Shabaash Mithu is not the film for it. If anything, Srijit Mukherji’s film takes the stuff out of the legend, leaving us with a vague, one-dimensional hero. It treats Mithali as the standalone messiah of women’s cricket in India. What she signifies ultimately supersedes who or what she really is. Her biggest glories—youngest ODI centurion (recently beaten by Ireland’s Amy Hunter), highest run-scorer in women’s cricket, its longest captain—are bundled into montages that whizz on by, with minimal impact. Not a line or anecdote or fascinating trivia sticks. Her conflicts and failures exert no force. As evinced by its title, with its emphatic ‘shabaash (well done)’, this is a film all too eager to praise.

The childhood portions are promising. Mithali, just eight, subdues a group of boys with her equally pint-sized best friend Noorie. The girls—prodigiously dubbed the ‘Sachin and Kambli’ of this story—get spotted by local trainer Sampath (Vijay Raaz), who enrolls them in his academy. When Noorie is prematurely married off to a boy in Dubai, thus leaving both her city and cricket, it strengthens Mithali’s resolve to continue pursuing their dream. “You got to keep on playing,” counsels coach Sampath. Vijay Raaz is absolutely essential to these scenes, his marvellously withered face and gray hair glinting in the afternoon sun.

As Mithali, now in her teens and played onwards by Taapsee Pannu, gets picked for National Camp, the film collapses in a heap of predictability. Srijit and writer Priya Aven pick the choicest of sports movie clichés to beat us over with. The other players (names mildly altered) behave coldly with Mithali. They jointly taunt, heckle and bully her—the impetus being that the new girl comes from relative privilege and is thus a ‘softie’. Mithali wins them over not through friendship and wit—as would seem the more natural course—but by a steady dominance on the crease. Her rise to captaincy, likewise, happens merit-wise (is it really ever that simple?). Most unimaginatively, there’s the hovering figure of the salty Ex-Captain, a trope without which no Bollywood sports party is complete.

Shabaash Mithu resembles Chak De! India (2007) in its highlighting of the scrappy treatment doled out to female national teams in India. The men’s side is universally favoured; they get sponsors, press, even privilege clearance at airports. “Cost-cutting”–Mithali is told of the hand-me-down jerseys her team receives from the cricket board. Yet when she confronts a senior official about it—played, expectedly, by Brijendra Kala—the scene only leads to further humiliation. The cleverly pitched match between the men’s and women’s team in Chak De! India is replaced here by the girls throwing in the jerseys and storming off. They’re painted as victims, to a degree at least, accepting a bad situation without a fight. By the time they turn it around it’s too little, too late.

Taapsee looks nothing like the real Mithali Raj (the effect is less distracting than I expected it to be). Her performance, at least on the field, is speedy and sharp. What throws the actor off are scenes of high emotional wattage: nervous young Mithali searching for her medical pouch or, later on, scoring a century in a state of grief and shock. Far better is her rendering of the smaller bits, like the quiet humiliation Mithali endures in a country of male-obsessed fans.

The 2017 World Cup—relayed, mostly, through television screens—looks like a rushed job. Srijit told Cinema Express in an interview that the pandemic scrambled their plans. Even so, there are evident compromises—like distilling all of Mithali Raj’s international career into two campaigns. Budget and scale, however, are minor problems in Shabaash Mithu; the bigger issue is of insight. This is entirely surface-level cinema. I was no more enlightened coming out as I was going in. This is a film that even Wikipedia beats.

Shabaash Mithu
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Mumtaz Sorcar, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, Devadarshini, Sampa Mandal
Director: Srijit Mukherji

Rating: 2/5 stars

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