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In the city of Bareilly UP aspiring boxer Shravan Vineeth slogs day and night to achieve his dream of being a recognised boxer.
Mukkabaaz movie cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Zoya Hussain, Jimmy Shergill, Ravi Kishan
Mukkabaaz movie director: Anurag Kashyap
Mukkabaaz movie rating: 3 stars
Anurag Kashyap’s best work is shot through with a strong political streak, and he weaves it into the plot with grit and a robust, raucous, bawdy wit.
I missed this very special Kashyap trait in his last couple of empty dystopian dramas, Ugly and Raman Raghav. With Mukkabaaz, the director is back in his zone, reflecting contemporary society and its fault-lines, in a film which melds sports, romance, gender, disability, caste, class… did I leave something out?
Kashyap’s ability to name names is important, especially now when Bollywood is being shoved back into la la land. Naming and shaming in today’s India is a badge of honor, and being able to place the elephant in the room is a win, straight-up. In that sense, Mukkabaaz is neither an Indian version of Rocky nor Raging Bull, which can quite easily be called ‘boxing movies’. Mukkabaaz is its own film.
The mukkabaaz from UP who desperately wants to become a professional boxer is Shravan Kumar (Vineet Singh). His nemesis is Bhagwan Das (Shergill), and the relentless manner in which their conflict plays out is testament to the fact that in India, you can change your class, but never your caste. It is what defines you, and confines you.
For those who have an ear, the name Shravan is a dead give-away. There’s delicious irony in Bhagwan the Brahmin doubling up as a vicious gangster, wielding God-like power over his minions, both in their personal and professional lives.
Given the current dispensation, I won’t be surprised if some loons object to a man called Bhagwan being a hood. Kashyap also bungs in a thread about ‘gau rakshaks’ and ‘badey ka meat’, (alluding to the recent cow-and-beef related attacks and killings) which is not really explored in detail, but the fact that it exists is also a minor victory.
Shravan’s challenges do not come only from the vengeful Bhagwan (Shergill is effective if one note). Wherever Shravan goes, casteism follows, whether it is at a lowly railway job where his superior forces him into servitude, or in the sporting arena where a different but equally vicious ‘quota’ system persists.
Love sets him free. He loses his heart to Bhagwan’s mute niece Sunaina (newcomer Zoya Hussain, sparkly). Kashyap assays her ‘disability’ to make a point about women who are forced into silence to survive. Spunky Sunaina is no ‘goongi gudiya’. She can’t talk, but her eyes speak.
The other place where the shackles fall off, even if temporarily, is the ring, where your ability to spar and dodge and KO your opponent is paramount. Kashyap regular Vineet Singh is earnest and effective: his ropy muscles look real, as do his attempts to transition from a brawler (‘mukkabaaz’) to a boxer (‘mukkebaaz’)—the difference between the two may only be a letter, but they occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, of disdain and respect.
As Shravan’s coach who remembers his own oppressed childhood under the ‘Bhumihaars’, Ravi Kishan is terrific. So are many of the supporting acts—Shravan’s tie-wearing, ‘Ingliss’-speaking friend, his family, and Sunaina’s father and mother.
The film falters when it slips into melodrama. There are some scenes which are played strictly for laughs (convent schools and the use of the English language are the butts, as they have been in other Kashyap films). You wish some of the slack had been taken up by things more useful, especially in a film as stuffed with issues.
But no matter. This is a film whose lack of ostensible polish works to enhance its rough-and-tumble flavor: Kashyap and the film are at its most sure-footed when they are calling out discrimination, across the board. That’s when their punches land in exactly the right place.