I was getting worried about Anurag Kashyap as I thought he needed to reach another level. Now that I have been knocked out (cheesy pun intended) by Mukkabaaz, I can see that my fears were unfounded. For those of you who haven’t yet explored the work of one of the most significant figures to emerge in Indian cinema over the last ten years or so, my introduction might need some explanation. If you don’t know Kashyap yet, that is understandable as his films struggle for a release in the UK/US.
Anurag Kashyap first came to industry attention as one of the main writers on Satya (1998), a Mumbai gangster pic from Ram Gopal Varma. His contribution was to ‘dirty up’ the standard conventions of a Hindi genre pic alongside one of the more innovatory directors of the period. Satya was very successful and won several awards. By the start of 2018 Kashyap had over 40 writing credits. He directed his first film in 2003, but Paanch struggled to get past the Indian censors (CBFC) and never achieved a proper release. Black Friday about the 1993 ‘Bombay Bombings’ was completed in 2004 but refused a certificate by the CBFC until 2007. Despite these distribution/exhibition problems both these two films screened successfully at festivals. Kashyap has gone on to build a career as a writer/director and producer with a sideline in acting. His relationship with mainstream Hindi cinema is still unclear – he moves towards and then away from it from picture to picture. But he has become for many commentators an important leader of Indian Independent Cinema. Much of this is down to his producer role and his enthusiasm for presenting films at international festivals – something Bollywood generally fails to do.
Kashyap has founded two production companies, each of which have made partnerships with major production outfits. The second of Kashyap’s companies is Phantom Films, actually a partnership with other producers and a director. The Indian ‘major’ Reliance took a 50% stake in this company in 2015. Phantom was a production partner on Mukabaaz with Colour Yellow, a similar company founded by producer-director Anand L. Rai. At Cannes in 2013, Kashyap was involved in all three of the Indian films being screened during the celebrations of ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ as director or producer as well as general cheerleader. Kashyap’s companies have helped other young directors at various times. The arthouse hit in the UK, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) was another film on which Kashyap was a co-producer. Kashyap’s own mainstream breakthrough as a director came with the mammoth 2-part 320 minute gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012. Since then I think we have been waiting for another film to match Gangs and Mukkabaaz feels like that film.
The story behind Mukkabaaz is as intriguing as the film itself. Vineet Kumar Singh from Varanasi (Benares) travelled to Mumbai at 18 like so many before him to follow a dream of becoming a success in the film industry. Eighteen years later after completing a medical degree on the side and writing his own sports-based screenplay, he hawked his script around while working in a range of film crew posts until he met Anurag Kashyap (also from Uttar Pradesh). Singh is now the star of his own story. To tell the story of an aspiring boxer he drew on his own experience as a teenage basketball player in the state competition in U.P. and to play the role he had to train as a boxer.
Outline (no spoilers)
The title ‘Mukkabaaz’ appears to refer to the distinction between ‘brawling’ and ‘boxing’. If so, it’s a good title since these are both activities Shravan Kumar needs at various times and he has to recognise the distinction and know how to handle complex situations. When the narrative begins, Shravan has been an aspiring boxer for several years and is part of a group under the coach Bhagwan Mishra (Jimmy Shergill) in Bareilly. One day he enters Bhagwan’s family courtyard and sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Bhagwan’s niece. It’s an immediate attraction but one fraught with problems. Bhagwan is the villain of the story whose prejudices about caste are married to an obsessive control syndrome in which he dominates the state boxing system, exerting influence even on the national system. The vivacious and talented Sunaina is mute and kept in the background (alongside her parents) by Bhagwan who hopes to marry her to a local businessman. Shravan breaks away from Bhagwan and eventually seeks out a new coach in Varanasi. He wants to marry Sunaina but Bhagwan stands in the way – just as he does if Shravan is to progress to regional and national status as a boxer.
This bare outline might make Mukkabaaz sound like any other sports hero story – even if it acknowledges the family melodrama. But this is India and sports narratives have a unique flavour in a country of 1.3 billion which outside of cricket has so far failed to produce the champions its vast pool of talent and collective wealth might be expected to deliver. In boxing, for instance, there are no Indian successes to match the legendary Cubans or the professional fighters of Mexico or Philippines. Part of the problem lies in the labyrinthine system of state level competition structures and the opportunities for corruption and political interference. Shravan is part of a system in which sporting success is also a means of fast-tracking into a government job, so at one point in the narrative he finds himself burdened with work at a railway maintenance depot (railway employment in India is still a secure form of employment in the public sector). Coupled with the need to support his extended family and a punishing training regime as he heads for the state finals in Lucknow, this stretches his resources almost to breaking point. Bhagwan’s influence in the state boxing world means that he has several ways to block Shravan’s progress.
The film’s narrative is concerned with both the corruption within sport but also the persistence of caste prejudice and the violence of extreme Hindu fundamentalist groups. Shravan is seen as ‘inferior’ by Bhagwan who loudly proclaims his own Brahmin status – marriage within the same grouping is still practised and Bhagwan believes Shravan is lower caste. However, Bhagwan’s ferocious attitude towards Shravan is arguably more concerned with the younger man’s resistance to Bhagwan’s authority. Caste also surfaces in more complex ways at the railway depot. On two occasions in the film we are witness to an attack by ‘Cow Protection Vigilantes’ – armed groups attacking anyone in their homes allegedly eating beef. These two issues in Anurag Kashyap’s film mark it out from the Hindi cinema mainstream, although in other ways Mukkabaaz looks back to earlier forms of the masala film. The family melodrama includes the fate of parents and the romance and sports stories rely on Shravan having the kind of best friend who will always be there to help him escape threats and pursue the villains (Bhagwan and his goons). At 154 minutes it is actually longer than many contemporary Hindi popular films – but it breaks the convention of Indian mainstream cinema by not having an intermission. It has 42 minutes of music, most of which is woven into the narrative. It does, however, have a cameo appearance as a wedding performer by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the current star of the ‘crossover’ world of independent and mainstream Hindi cinema whose career has been helped by his roles for Kashyap. Most of the music is written by Rachita Arora and I was pleased to see that all the lyrics of the songs are translated for the English subtitles.
For me, Mukkabaaz works in every way. I was completely engaged in the narrative and I loved the music (always a strength with Kashyap). I was expecting an intermission and suddenly realised we were nearing the end of the narrative – a sure sign that my engagement was total. Jimmy Shergill is a genuine melodrama villain and the central pairing of Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain, perhaps because they were both approaching a major cinema role for the first time, works terrifically well. Singh is completely convincing as a boxer – and the camerawork by Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi and his collaborators makes all the fights feel genuine as well as exciting. Many commentators have noted the symbolism in making Sunaina mute but the intelligence and wit in her performance is in some ways even more important. The film’s ending works very well – it is both unexpected in genre terms but seems ‘right’ for the narrative.
This will be one of my films of the year – I haven’t enjoyed a new release as much for a long time. In the UK this Kashyap film was released by Eros International, one of the biggest distributors of Bollywood films. Even so, in Bradford the film lasted only a week and in my screening there was just one other patron. Meanwhile the Bollywood blockbusters in the other screens carry on week after week. Why doesn’t Mukkabaaz draw the crowds? Is it just too ‘Indian’ for the diaspora audience?