Somewhere around the one-hour mark in Mary Kom, the boxer's first world championship win is re-enacted. The film crosscuts between the fight and Kom's friends and family cheering her on back home; all except her father, who doesn't approve of his daughter's choice of career. Yet, when he does start watching, Kom, till then on the receiving end, suddenly accesses the strength to fight back and win. Not content with one ode to the transformative powers of telepathy, director Omung Kumar repeats the same thing an hour later, this time with a dying baby and a battered Kom in her fourth world championship. By then, it's the audience that's down for the count.
MC Mary Kom's journey from poverty in strife-ridden Manipur to five world championship titles and an Olympic bronze is one of the great soul-stirring narratives of Indian sport. All Kumar had to do was tell her story straight. Instead, he falls into the same trap that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag did — second guessing first-rate material, embellishing and editorialising, adding drama where drama already exists. Kom's battles with callous officials, her championing of her home state, her post-pregnancy comeback are transformed into awkward Bollywood showdowns. The result is an incomplete, often incoherent, portrait of an impossibly eventful life.
Mary Kom has pretty much every sports movie cliché you'd care to name: the hot-headed young student, the grizzled coach, the obligatory training montage, the equally obligatory stamina-building-in-rough-terrain montage. Yet, unlike recent Bollywood productions that have gotten their sporting mechanics right (Chak De India!, Paan Singh Tomar), Mary Kom is never convincing as a boxing film. We're told next to nothing about Kom's fighting style or the kind of tactics she employed; her devastating left hook is mentioned just once in the whole movie. Even Kom's coach rarely says anything more insightful than "Keep your guard up" or "Don't lose focus". I learnt more about ice hockey from watching The Mighty Ducks than I did about boxing from Mary Kom.
Almost every aspect of the film reveals a singular lack of imagination. In the scene where the coach asks Kom why she wants to box, the film's three writers can only offer a weak "I love boxing. I love boxing..." The visual scheme is repetitive and uninspired: the stadia all look the same, and each new destination is introduced the same way — a shot of the city at night and some time-lapse traffic. The camerawork is shaky to a fault, especially in the beginning; the editing is deliberately fractured (it's the only way to make Chopra look convincing as a boxer). The one visual flourish that sticks out is borrowed — the reverse swan dive from Million Dollar Baby.
Priyanka Chopra tries so hard to do justice to her role that after the while, all one can see is the effort. Everything she does looks rehearsed: tears, smiles, flashes of anger all arrive on cue, exactly when you expect them to. Chopra is so hell-bent on delivering a performance for the ages that she forgets to relax; she's so keyed up, even her coughs sound fake. Darshan Kumar is pleasantly low-key as Kom's husband Onler, though Kenny Basumatary, who plays his friend, might have brought some comic energy to the role. Sunil Thapa is a growling, glowering caricature of a tough coach.
Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom was always going to be a compromise, but seeing her on screen, speaking in artfully broken Hindi, looking nothing like the real-life Kom or the actors playing her mother and friends, her presence in the film felt more than unnatural — it was close to offensive. How many actors with at least a passing resemblance to Kom were considered for the role? In one scene, Kom accuses a selection panel of racism. It's a charge that might be levelled against the film itself. Mary Kom is blackface without the makeup.
This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.
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