Mukkabaaz: Anurag Kashyap's film pits a 'loser' protagonist against the system, but its critique is not radical

MK Raghavendra

Jan,21 2018 19:17 00 IST

Anurag Kashyap's Mukkabaaz may well have been a ‘sports film’ from any other director, but not from him. The sports film – of which the most recent example has been Dangal (2016) – is essentially about people competing successfully in sport, wearing the tricolour and doing the nation proud; it has, in effect, used winning in sport as an expression of patriotic sentiments. Mukkabaaz, in contrast, is about losing in sport and when the protagonist chants ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ at a victorious moment, the intent is clearly ironic. Rather than resembling Dangal or Chak De! India (2002) in its tone, it is closer to Masaan (2015), Titli (2014) or even the director’s own Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016). It does not fall sqaurely into the categories that exist in Hindi films, and the black pessimism that characterises it can also be found in the Tamil film Visaaranai (2015). These films are critically acclaimed and have done well internationally, but because of what they focus on, one is left wondering about their value as social critiques.

Anurag Kashap has been prolific, and one sees in his films a view of India that no other film-maker offers. But what also becomes evident is that he lacks both restraint and aesthetic judgment. He is prone to interrupting action, to include some detail or episode, which is arbitrary and over-the-top. Scenes depicting festivities are crammed into Mukkabaaz's story and characters often slap each other for no reason. The female lead is mute, although why she has been etched so is uncertain. If Raman Raghav 2.0 was unwatchable for its brutality, Mukkabaaz contains moments of raw violence that make one want to turn away. The film is noisy due to the incessant action, the violence and the raucous music, which leave little room for a reflective response. Still, those unfamiliar with this category of Hindi cinema – which is proliferating – might find it very disturbing, while the film aesthete who favours ‘dark visions’ could be impressed. The films in this category are shot on location and the performances are never less than convincing; this means that one needs to scrutinise their underlying premises instead of merely responding superficially. That their visual aesthetic is diametrically opposed to that of the mainstream films should not matter.

Vineet Kumar Singh in a still from Mukkabaaz. YouTube

Vineet Kumar Singh in a still from Mukkabaaz. YouTube screengrab

Mukkabaaz tells the story of an aspiring boxer Shravan Kumar Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) from Bareilly who falls foul of Bhagwandas Mishra (Jimmy Shergill), a local strongman and boxing promoter, and gets into more trouble by by falling in love with and marrying his niece Sunaina (Zoya Hussain). Bhagwandas is conscious of his own Brahmin lineage and will not tolerate either a Thakur like Shravan marrying into his family, or opposition to his position in the boxing establishment in Bareilly. Shravan has no other talent apart from boxing, and being blocked at every step exasperates him. The film tells the story of his travails before he attains some limited eminence in the sport, much as he holds on to Sunaina, who Bhagwandas is trying to take away. Shravan must deal with his peon’s job in the railways; he can only train after working hours. To make matters worse, he needs to understand sign language, which he picks up in discussion group meetings, to ‘receive love’ from his mute wife. In telling this story, Anurag Kashyap dwells on societal matters like unreliable standards in sport, caste hierarchy and violence, governmental incompetence and corruption, social hierarchy and the obstacles it creates. The film is about people failing because of the ‘system’, which cannot be beaten, and there is no social issue the director seemingly spares.

The strategy used by the film in dealing with the ‘system’ is the same one used by the other films about ‘losers’, which is to show the failure of effort due to social structures and pressures. The term ‘loser’ is an American one which presumes a perpetual state of competition in society such that all citizens are deemed contestants; everyone is therefore either a winner or a loser. Indian society is hardly like that, and describing the protagonists of the films as ‘losers’ may be inappropriate. But the narratives of the films are all constructed to show people failing at something or being helplessly in the grip of irremediable situations, and it is in this context that the term is applied.

All the identified films of the ‘loser’ genre have some things in common. The first of these is that they all deal with a desire or need which cannot be fulfilled, or a predicament which cannot be overcome. In Mukkabaaz Shravan throws away his chance at winning the national title because Bhagwandas is too powerful; in Masaan the policeman-blackmailer has to be paid off; in Titli the money which may have allowed the protagonist to lead a better life must be spent on medical treatment for a needlessly smashed hand.

Secondly, in each of these films, the ‘system’ is embodied by a villain, too powerful to be neutralised. In Mukkabaaz it is Bhagwandas, while in Masaan and Titli, it is the crooked policeman.

A still from Masaan. Youtube screengrab

A still from Masaan. Youtube screengrab

The ‘system’ by definition engulfs everyone (although unequally), and those who are better placed have merely learnt to play it. This means that, in the given circumstances, the villains should themselves be threatened, but in each of these films the villain is made invincible. It is in representing the ‘system’ that the films consistently fail since we are not convinced that the protagonists do all they can for themselves. Shravan is a railway employee who gets employment as a candidate in the ‘sports quota’. If the governmental machinery is as corrupt and inefficient as the film makes it out to be, one cannot show a state employee being unable to work his way around his duties, but that is how Shravan is portrayed – as entirely oppressed and overburdened by his work in the railways. He can frighten his superior into wetting his trousers and take a ‘selfie’ of the episode, but cannot get off early enough for training! In Titli the protagonist crushes his wife’s right hand with a hammer to ensure that she cannot sign away some bank deposits, but such a ploy would hardly succeed; she could still be made to affix her left-hand thumb impression. In Masaan a Sanskrit professor in Benaras knows no one with enough authority to help him against a low-ranking policeman blackmailing him for something that is not even illegal. In Raman Raghav 2.0 it is as though society and the law have no recourse against two murderous criminals, whose doings are never investigated.

The third and final characteristic these films share is that they all portray gratuitous violence which is not adequately supported by the plot. In Mukkabaaz, Shravan’s father has both his legs broken by Bhagwandas with a gardening implement, and this writer is not convinced that this was necessary for the film. This unmotivated (in terms of plot) portrayal of blunt violence can even be called gleeful; so arbitrary is it and used to such a large extent to titillate in the name of ‘realism’. The term ‘titillate’ may be contested here, but the film attempts to excite or shock through brutal spectacle without adequate narrative justification.

If one were to describe the pessimistic viewpoint presented by each of the films, one might say they were not so much social critiques of an existing state of affairs as much as a general condemnation of societal workings with an indistinct sense of how power relations are actually exercised, or how everything is held together. The films have done well internationally, but there is little evidence that they are primarily meant for overseas exhibition. There is, in fact, a large domestic audience for these films and this may set them apart from art cinema. This leads us to ask another question which pertains to the ideology of the pessimism exhibited by these films: Can they be considered politically radical? This is an important question, because it has a bearing on political attitudes prevalent among a section of the middle-class – the English-speaking, educated people evidently addressed by these films. The reviews and media comments lauding such cinema are not radical, and this provides us with a hint.

A still from Mukkabaaz. Youtube screengrab

A still from Mukkabaaz. Youtube screengrab

The ‘system’ as it is generally understood is not only the state machinery, the government and social structure (all tackled by Mukkabaaz), but also capitalism and the economic superstructure which determine a multitude of relationships in society. Strange though this may seem, capitalism is an area which none of these films touch upon and this asymmetry finds correspondence in sports films where government incentives are spurned (as in Chak De! India) but a signing fee from a private sponsor saves a family (as in Iqbal, 2005). The films from the ‘loser’ category to which Mukkabaaz belongs are all highly critical of the state, and this might be perfunctorily equated with political radicalism.

But when one looks at ‘anti-state’ rhetoric in the public space one discovers that it is actually of two kinds that are poles apart. On the one hand are the radical critiques of state action from left-wing activists like Arundhati Roy, and on the other are the economics-driven criticisms of state intervention from business managers who direct their arguments towards economic reform. (When radical academics denouncing the state are cheered by their students they would perhaps do well to ascertain if the aspects of the state they rail against are the same ones their students abhor.) The very haziness of what directors like Anurag Kashyap attack hence leave us wondering about the kind of ‘system’ they might favour – as an alternative to the ones they decry. But it is perhaps the same haziness that helps the critiques survive and gather attention despite the lacunae in their political perceptions.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

Published Date: Jan 21, 2018 19:17 PM | Updated Date: Jan 22, 2018 15:46 PM