Saturday, January 20, 2018

Mukkabaaz: Review

In Redoubtable, a film about the personal and professional partnership of French director Jean-Luc Godard and actor Anne Wiazemsky, there’s an amusing reference to the difficulties of Design by Committee as applied to cinema. I was reminded of that scene when I saw the opening credits of Mukkabaaz, even though this film—unlike the one Godard was making—has only one director, and is unmistakably his work. First came the names of seven writers: Anurag Kashyap, Vineet Kumar Singh, Ranjan Chandel, Prasoon Mishra, KD Satyam, Mukti Singh Srinet and Anudeep Singh. This was followed by four cinematographers (Rajeev Ravi, Shanker Raman, Jay Patel, Jayesh Nair), two editors (Aarti Bajaj, Ankit Bidyadhar) and three composers (Rachita Arora, Prashant Pillai, Nucleya). The intern in charge of lunch orders probably deserved a credit.

The funny thing is, Mukkabaaz turns out to be exactly the sort of film you’d expect from an expansive crew like this. There are more ideas per scene than is strictly necessary, more targets than can possibly be hit. The narrative is messy, chaotic; it has that off-the-cuff feel that Kashyap last nailed in Gangs of Wasseypur. There’s an unflagging energy to the whole enterprise, a cinematic fidgetiness that extends to the camerawork and the cutting and the topics of discussion picked up and discarded almost too fast to register. It isn’t difficult to imagine Kashyap on set grabbing whoever was nearby, asking them what they thought of a scene, and running with their suggestions.

The film begins with two men being beaten by vigilante gau-rakshaks, who record the lynching on their cellphones. In the next scene, as he’s walking to his coach’s house, Shravan Kumar Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) recognizes a couple of the assailants from the video by the roadside and casually asks them what they were up to the previous night. This one-two punch is a measure of how well Kashyap knows his terrain. Most directors would have stopped at the first scene, few would have included the sardonic follow-up about the everyday unremarkableness of violence in Uttar Pradesh. Violence erupts at regular intervals in this film—mostly over caste, class, religion—but it’s the occasional acts of kindness that are more surprising.

Shravan doles out, and bears the brunt of, a large part of this violence. He’s a boxer, a mukkebaaz, with the hotheadedness of a mukkabaaz (brawler), chafing under the rule of his coach, Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Sheirgill), a corrupt strongman who runs UP boxing like a fiefdom. Frustrated with his lack of opportunity, Shravan gets into an argument which ends with him clocking Bhagwan in the face. This leaves him with two problems (apart from being beaten to a pulp by his former coach’s trainees)—his dreams of boxing glory are now in jeopardy, and he’s only just fallen for Bhagwan’s niece, Sunaina (Zoya Hussain).

After some soul-searching, sole-stitching and brick-breaking, Shravan finds himself in Varanasi, training under the unorthodox Sanjay Kumar (Ravi Kishan). The plan is to enter the state championships from there—Bhagwan has a stranglehold over Bareilly—which allows for a pulsating variation on the obligatory sports movie training montage, shot on the ghats and scored to Nucleya and Divine’s thundering “Paintra”. By this time, Shravan and Sunaina are a couple. Theirs is a surprisingly sweet love story—she’s mute, he can’t hold his tongue, but they’re committed to making their relationship work (“You’re fixed in my heart. Only you can tell whether I am fixed in yours,” his first letter to her reads).

Though the film is primarily concerned with the dismal state of sporting infrastructure in India, Kashyap clearly has current events on his mind. By making Sanjay a Dalit and Bhagwan a bigoted Brahmin, caste discrimination is brought forward with a directness not often seen in Hindi cinema. Late in the film, there’s another lynching by a “cow protection” group. Mukkabaaz might have been unremittingly dark, but there’s a lot of humour and eccentricity to liven things up, and the general mood is one of hope (as opposed to Ugly or Raman Raghav 2.0, where you just know things won’t work out).

Vineet Singh is both physically convincing and touching as the embattled boxer—had a more successful actor been cast, Shravan’s hunger is unlikely to have come through so clearly. Kishan, with those great hurt eyes of his, is wonderful as well; why he’s cast so seldom in good Hindi films is a mystery. Sheirgill, through no fault of his own, is less memorable: the one-note antagonist he’s playing has nothing to do except escalate his villainy. There’s a brief period in the second half when the film seems to run out of ideas, yet even here Kashyap finds a detail, a scene, something to tide the audience by – like when Shravan decides to get unreasonably mad at his friend for using “doubtless” in a sentence.

Mukkabaaz is a bracing start to the movie year—overstuffed, enjoyable and urgent. It doesn’t have big stars, but feels like a commercial movie in a way that Bombay Velvet didn’t. Not that there’s anything typical about its crowd-pleasing moments: the item number—if you can call it that—is by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Viewers will be reminded of Nawaz dancing to “Emosanal Attyachar” in Kashyap’s Dev.D. It’s heartening to know that at least one of the Presleys of Patna is still singing at weddings, and is evidently very popular.

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