I went into this screening with no expectations and came out wondering exactly what I’d seen. I remembered the furore about the figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994 but I was unaware of how it had been covered in the US media. My immediate reaction to the film was that Tonya got a ‘bum rap’ from the authorities, but since the film begins by telling us that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews, I don’t know if this is a reasonable position or not. I will say that Margot Robbie as Tonya gives an amazing performance. Allison Janney as her mother gives the kind of performance you expect from a great character actor.
For anyone who doesn’t know the background to the story, Tonya Harding in the late 1980s was a working-class girl who had shown genuine skating talent from the time she was a toddler and as an older teenager she was clearly a major talent with athleticism and a real drive to succeed. Aged 14 she was 6th in the American Championships in 1985 and a year later 2nd in the Skate America international competition. But from the start Harding felt she was treated unfairly because of her working-class background and for the next eight years she struggled to gain credibility even when she won or was well-placed in major international competitions. In 1994 she was charged, along with her ex-husband, his friend and two hired thugs that they had attacked Harding’s rival Kerrigan. Harding maintained she didn’t know about the physical attack but she confessed to the charge that she subsequently conspired to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. The whole series of events became a tabloid sensation in the US and when Harding was sentenced she received what amounted to a lifetime ban from skating.
Given the coverage at the time, anyone over 40 in America today knows the story and younger audiences must be similarly aware: Wikipedia informs me that there have been several TV documentaries as well as a play and a musical plus references/spoofs in other entertainment media. Why then should you be interested in this new film? The first reason may well be Margot Robbie’s performance. The Australian actor is 5′ 6”. Tonya Harding is 5′ 1″. Robbie is not a look-a-like stand-in but she is convincing in ageing from 15 to 47. Much of the performance requires world-class skating (and Harding was one of the strongest athletic skaters around). The filmmakers (Robbie was also a producer on the film directed by another Australian, Craig Gillespie) managed to use CGI, literally drawing on Harding’s routines, but even so it is a tour de force by Robbie.
The key to the film’s approach is the choice of ‘mockumentary’ and reality TV as an aesthetic mode, so we are offered ‘straight to camera’ comments by the principals as if they were being interviewed today (i.e. Robbie is aged to 47). During the historical narrative, the same principals will also turn to the camera and offer observations on the scene as it is unfolding. Several reviews reference Scorsese’s presentation of Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and that’s not a bad shout in terms of the use of music and voiceovers. I’m not a fan of reality TV and though I found some scenes amusing, I was also saddened to see a life marked by domestic violence that is played for laughs. I thought that the array of characters were exaggerated grotesques – only then to discover from the photographs at the end in the credits sequence that at least the actors did look like the real players in this biopic. The mockumentary tropes also get in the way of the other genre features which interest me more. I, Tonya is a sports movie of a specific kind. In the Guardian Anne Billson offers a useful piece in which she points out that the film deals with a sport in which women are not competing in a ‘man’s world’ and therefore we can enjoy a different kind of sports narrative. Billson also offers us brief descriptions of several other sports stories with female leads to underpin her argument, including the Drew Barrymore-Ellen Page film Whiplash (US 2014), which would make an interesting comparison for film students.
Ice skating is one of those sports with a relatively ‘niche’ following of devoted fans, but which occasionally produces a celebrity figure with wide appeal. The Winter Olympics is always a high point and this year it was the Canadian ice-dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, three-time gold medallists who wowed a Canadian public who seemingly want the couple to marry. On the same day as I, Tonya‘s release, The Ice King, a documentary about John Curry, the supreme ice-dancer from the 1970s also opened in UK cinemas – unfortunately overshadowed by the American film. Skating fans will no doubt seek it out on DVD or online.
There are several distinct features of skating as a sport. One is difficulty of access and the funding for equipment and training. Entertainment features tend to gloss over this. So, while I, Tonya makes jokes about abuse and the costumes that Tonya and her mother sew at home, it doesn’t represent the very real struggle to compete without adequate funds. The conservative attitudes of the administrators of American skating create another barrier to success. A sport like skating is in one sense linked to equestrian sports in the UK in terms of funding, access and potential class conflict. But in North America they might be linked to geographical isolation and small town communities. I, Tonya is odd in not exploring Harding’s home context in Portland, Oregon. I assumed at first that the Hardings were in the South (and the film was shot almost entirely in Georgia, supported by that state’s film commission). It also misses a trick in not exploring more of Nancy Kerrigan’s background (which may be down to permissions). Kerrigan was also from a working-class background in a small town north of Boston. She wasn’t a privileged skater, though in ideological terms her career success could be seen as the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘family support’ – factors difficult for Tonya Harding to draw on for various reasons.
I, Tonya is a well-made film with some great performances and I was certainly engaged throughout. It does give a sense of the impact of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism as it began to be used on cable TV news in North America, but it misses out on a real story about sport, class and gender. Harding’s life after her conviction could be the basis for a whole new narrative but in I, Tonya it is just a relatively brief coda.
Here is the trailer. It hints at the extensive use of popular songs on the soundtrack, which includes Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ and Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4′ plus Doris Day and a host of familiar 70s and 80s stuff.
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?
This is a highly enjoyable film. It couldn’t really fail as a nostalgic celebration of arguably the most successful sports team of all time. But it’s a good watch for all audiences – whether or not you remember the West Indies Test team of the 1970s and 1980s. There is actually relatively little about cricket itself as a game, but a great deal about what it represented as a political and cultural force for Caribbean people in the period.
The documentary covers the years between the humiliating test defeat of the West Indies in Australia in the winter of 1975-76 up until the 5-0 ‘Blackwash’ of England in the summer of 1984. This was the period in which Clive Lloyd led a team which was transformed from stereotypical ‘calypso cricketers’ into a honed squad of invincibles, in the process forging a symbol of a unified West Indian identity across the disparate countries of the Caribbean and bolstering the struggle against racism and colonialist hangovers.
The events are carefully narrativised so that there is a conventional story arc. So, the success of the West Indies in the inaugural World Cup in London in 1975 is not included. They beat Australia twice in the one day competition and that wouldn’t have been a good starting point. Instead we get to see them pulverised by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. I’d forgotten this and it was quite a shock. Indian commentators have noted that the film also misrepresents the next series they played against India. But apart from these manipulations the story is told in a straightforward way using archive footage and talking heads. The latter are often photographed in a stylised way, in a studio or on location in the Caribbean. As well as the cricketers themselves, the ‘interviewees’ include the great Bunny Wailer and several highly entertaining supporters. Interspersed are performances from a mento band, reggae stars like Tapper Zukie, archive footage of Bob Marley and, my favourite, a song by Short Shirt, the Antiguan calypsonian in the most outrageous costume I’ve seen in a while – I can’t begin to describe the exact colour of his hat and shoes! The impact of these interviews/performances filmed in HD video and with pulsing graphics using the African colours of green, red and gold is all the greater because of their juxtaposition with the archive video footage on a big screen using digital projection.
The strength of the film is its clear connection between pride in cricket and pride in African heritage, emphasised by the comments of Bunny Wailer. It’s always been a sensitive area to comment on the sporting prowess of Black athletes because of the danger of ‘reducing’ Black achievement to physique rather than an overall appreciation of skill and intelligence. The film avoids this, I think, by its careful linkage of the US models (Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics etc.) with Clive Lloyd’s leadership and the fantastic individual stars of this great team. How could you not respond to the beauty, grace and power of Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’) surely the most aesthetically pleasing as well as the most lethal sight on a cricket pitch? What could top the sight of Viv Richards ducking bouncers and then sending the next ball to the boundary rope? The filmmakers have chosen the interviewees carefully so that we meet the most articulate and inspiring members of the team. Richards is a commanding presence, Andy Roberts is dry and deadly and Gordon Greenidge (who came to live in England aged 14) is the most dignified. Importantly there is one player whose presence in the documentary cuts through the possibility of too much simple idolatry on behalf of the audience. Colin Croft, one of the four bowling greats, accepted the money to join the rebel tour of South Africa in 1983 when the apartheid regime attempted to discredit the sporting boycott of South Africa. Croft survived the subsequent ban and shame to return as a respected commentator today – but many of the others on that tour had their careers, and indeed their lives, destroyed by the critical backlash. This part of the story, in which West Indian cricketers who were paid very little in comparison with modern stars were tempted by a chance to lift themselves out of relative poverty, is matched by the story of Kerry Packer’s ‘World Series Cricket’ in the late 1970s which saw Clive Lloyd’s team at odds with its own administrators in a bid to get better pay and conditions. The two stories underline the politics of international cricket.
The film works well politically. The focus on Australia, England and South Africa is justified in putting across the symbolism of the defeat of racism and colonialism. English cricket suffered from poor administration and the influence of the ‘backwoodsmen’ who still seemed to feel that they were running the Empire. The decision to make Tony Greig, a South African, captain of England at this time was outrageous. During the desperate days of overt racism in the 1970s and 1980s, most people I knew supported the West Indians unreservedly and to see Michael Holding dismiss Greig twice at the Oval in 1976 is one of my most cherished memories. (For those who don’t know cricket, I should point out that most of these West Indian test cricketers also played county cricket in England and they were heroes to UK crowds as well.)
The film was directed by Stevan Riley, a young British guy who has clearly impressed Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd and gained access to the right people. I hope the film gets seen in the Caribbean and persuades more young people to get interested in cricket so that the Test team can be rejuvenated. It’s great too to hear all the music again and it must be time for more films from the region. Go and see this film or get hold of the DVD – it’s pure joy. I’m off to dig out some Linton Kwesi Johnson whose dub poetry is used in one clip.