Mukkabaaz movie review: Anurag Kashyap's film beautifully explores love in the time of hate
Mukkabaaz is a film about love, hate, perseverance and sport. It is also, a film about India.
castVineet Kumar Singh, Rajesh Tailang, Zoya Hussain, Jimmy Shergill, Ravi Kissen
Editor's note: This review was originally published on 13 October 2017, when Mukkabaaz opened the 19th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. We are republishing it here to time with its theatrical release on 12 January 2018.
In the grand old hall of Liberty Cinema in Mumbai, (at a time when the city was still known as Bombay), Hindi films had a special space. The theatre, made in the Art Deco style the year India got its independence, it was named Liberty to celebrate this very new and hopeful nation that was to unfold.
It was the place where films like Mughal-e-Azam and Mother India premiered in the '50s... one can close one’s eyes and imagine a bustling audience filling the 1,200-seater theatre to the brim. On the night of 12 October 2017, the same place came alive with the opening ceremony of the 19th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
Just as the theatre had previously screened movies from where audiences cheered when love won over its enemies, Anurag Kashyap’s film Mukkabaaz unfolded with a new rendition of the eternal ingredient of literature and of cinema: Love. And within it, another story, of the world that love is surrounded by: Hate.
As the young aspiring boxer, Shravan Singh from Bareilly, meets the eyes of his boss' beautiful niece Sunaina, there is a moment on screen that harks right back to good old love stories: When the world shuts down for them and you know their long fight in a difficult society is about to begin. And so the story kicks off, in this film about love, hate, perseverance, sport and about India.
This is Uttar Pradesh, where anger is brimming over, aspirations are carefully crushed by the wheels of bureaucracy, and young men are looking for an identity in mobs and clusters.
The boss — a man who runs a fiefdom with the local boxers as his servants — has a name that speaks to the delusions of men in power, Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill). He's driven by hatred and violence; Mishra would do anything for his ego, hurt by the best brawler in town Shravan Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) and Sunaina (Zoya Hussain). She cannot speak but has a distinct and firm voice (brought forth through technology; texts, photographs, recordings and her own will).
The metaphor of voice, rebellion and voiceless men and women runs beautifully through the film, especially in the way it adapts modern devices in its narrative, to show how contemporary identities are created.
The path of the lovers as it is meant to be, is full of hurdles — not just from the world, but also from their individual aspirations, desperate to survive in a limited society to which they belong. With Bhagwan Das resolving to never let Shravan compete in the district championship until he lets go of Sunaina, there is another narrative that lurks, one about caste and the entitlement and the state of sports and sportsmen at the local level.
In an interesting touch later, a sub story about reverse casteism is yet another episode of an earnest brawler paying for something that is equally unjust for him.
It is precisely these moments sprinkled through the film that makes the story also about India, where you work hard and wonder if the one above you in designation or class is the one who has your destiny in his pocket. The lovers battle hatred separately and together. Shravan finds a coach (played by Ravi Kishen), a man diligent in his dream of coaching young boxers amidst adversity and nonexistent state support. A man who quietly pushes Shravan and reminds him his love will win if his sport does.
In a country where sportsmen struggle for respect, Mukkabaaz is also about the sub culture (and neglect) of boxing in dusty towns. The soundtrack of the film pushes the story with its satirical words, including the track 'Paintra' by Nucleya, with boxers on the banks of Varanasi.
The performances of the main and the supporting cast bring out each of the distinct characters they play. The film takes its time to tell its story (the runtime of the film's festival version is almost two-and-a-half hours). But then it takes time for love and fairness to fight their battles and stand up to the consuming hatred and vengeance of people with power.
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