In a not-so-crucial scene of Mukkabaaz, Sanjay Kumar (Ravi Kishan) a weathered Dalit boxing coach hangs a rhetorical question in front of the hero, Shravan Kumar Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh). “Tumko taey karna hai tum Mukkabaaz banna chahate ho ya Mukkebaaz!” (You have to decide whether you want to be a brawler or a boxer). The question is posed in the predictable tone that gurus adopt while dispensing gyan to their students. It’s a generic admonishment but it has far-reaching consequences. Almost of the meta level. It’s also a question Anurag Kashyap, keeping his creative team in confidence, must have asked himself.
The trick, as anyone who has seen more than one sports film will tell you, is in reining in. And Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz isn’t called Mukkebaaz for a reason. It holds back no punches. Kashyap stays true to his instincts, even while delivering the most politically nuanced film of his career. And that’s the biggest success of Mukkabaaz a film about boxing which is anything but. It’s Kashyap holding mirror to us yet again. It’s him telling you that the gau rakshaks you demonize, the Hindi hinterland that you despise, the caste politics that you want to unsee, are all products of your misgivings.
You will probably read tomes about the film’s fantastic opening sequence in the coming weeks and here is the reason for that. Kashyap squarely places you in the thick of things with a simple trick-by making you privy to a grisly Whatsapp video of gau rakshaks beating up Muslim cow-traders. Our hero, Shravan, a Dalit who, in a different place (read Una) could have been at the other side of the clip, is casually watching it with his friends. He recognises some of the lynchers as a fellow boxers and teases them. That’s when you realise, to your utter horror, that this guy, with a wad of notes pressed into his hands and a quarter of rum down his throat, could very well have been one of the lynchers.
Kashyap lets you digest that.
He then ritualistically, almost with clinical precision, humanises the monster. He makes you fall in love with Shravan, the Bareily boy with dreams in his eyes. Shravan, who tapes his torn trainers with bandages and borrows money from his school-going sister to buy gifts for his girlfriend. Shravan, who is madly in love with the niece of his nemesis (Bhagwan Das), Sunaina (Zoya Hussain). This could be Raj pining for his Simran or Prem secretly checking out his Nisha at a wedding party.
Or he could be the rightful inheritor of Arjun, the jobless youth of the 1980s who is pushed to a life of crime because of his circumstances. But Kashyap doesn’t lend himself to easy parallels.
Eventually, when Kashyap is done manipulating with your moral compass, he gives you the choice to root for the guy or not. And it takes guts to play that game.
At no point of the film does Kashyap let you forget that as a country, we still delve in the fault lines of prejudices. Shravan Kumar Singh may try to move up in his life, but is consistently cut down to size by people around him. It’s a world where everyone wants to know your last name and the cushion of a generic one, like Singh, isn’t enough. “Aajkal chotte jaat ke log Singh laga lete hain apne naam ke saath aur aa jaate hai!” (Nowadays, people from lower castes try to hide their identity behind generic surnames like Singh), spits the glowering Bhagwan Das.
Jimmy Shergill, who plays the corrupt politicians in charge of the UP boxing federation, ensures his portrayal is coloured with just the right amount of schizophrenia. He is reigns over a corrupt-to-the-core system and talks about overhauling it.
Mukkabaaz, like most Kashyap films is drenched in testosterone. There is a scene to elucidate that very fact. After a work-out session, Shravan casually wrings his t-shirt and squeezes out almost a bucket of sweat. Though one can’t really say his treatment of his leading lady, the mercurial Sunaina, is problematic, one wishes he would have lived with her a bit more. More often than not, she comes across as a one-note character.
But in Shravan, Kashyap finally finds a true metaphor for the times. He is the victim and the saviour of his own destiny. A man who chooses his battles wisely in the face of such abject adversity. We need more Shravans.