Mukkabaaz shows how Bollywood's successfully co-opted desi sports in its onscreen tales
Anurag Kashyap's Mukkabaaz is about a boxer from Uttar Pradesh. The state is not particularly known for excelling in the sport. Yet, Kashyap, in signature form, adapts a love story to the all-pervasive caste politics, prejudice and power games that have become integral to the DNA of this state. In his film, boxing is a backdrop and a metaphor to tell the story of an underdog fighting for his love, while battling social prejudice.
Kashyap’s narrative technique is not uncommon to cinema. Sports films are basically about the triumph of the human spirit against all odds.
In Hollywood and Western cinema, films based on sports are an independent genre. The most memorable ones, with a universal connect and nostalgic appeal, tend to use a sport as a mirror reflection for a human story. Martin Scorcese admitted that he knew nothing about boxing before he made Raging Bull, a classic where the boxer, Jake LaMotta and his temper, reflect a common level of suffering for a section of Americans. The film is raw, brutal and unapologetic in the violence it attributes to boxing; yet it makes you want to find out what finally happens to its violent, flawed protagonist.
Chariots of Fire, the 1981 classic, underscores the tense balance of power that Europe lived out during the years in between two World Wars. Both its protagonists overcome identity politics, complexities of faith and the stiff British upper lip to win on the track and field in the 1924 Olympics. Likewise, Any Given Sunday draws from the unbridled energy and physical power of American football to narrate a tale of desperation — from its coach, to the team’s owner, to the team itself — are desperate to prove themselves at something.
Interestingly, recent Hindi films based on sport have adapted this template suitably. Sports films based on dominant sports are fewer. Films that draw from desi sports drive greater interest among writers and filmmakers. What’s more, they have connected with audiences. From a patriotic, unifying tenor, to batting for women’s’ empowerment, to simply making the self made regular person a national hero, sports films are finding a niche in a content-starved film industry.
The mainstream media does not cover local boxing in India elaborately. Celebrity bouts for heavy weight titles make news, as and when. But for Mukkabaaz, the connect lies in the physical punch an underdog can pack to change his fate and prove a point. It’s a sport that inspires emotional reaction, making for a clever narrative tool. Similarly, hockey has been reduced to the sidelines of media reportage, except for the Commonwealth Games and Olympics. The national game has slipped out of the public discourse too, with fewer school kids opting to play hockey in cities today.
However, two Hindi films juxtapose inherent winner stories from Indian hockey this year: Daljit Dosanjh will play Sandeep Singh, in Shaad Ali’s Soorma. The film looks at this Arjuna Award winner’s return to glory after a life changing accident. Gold, starring Akshay Kumar looks at the 12 years before 1948, when the Indian hockey team won an Olympic medal. Directed by Reema Kagti, this film is big on budget and scale. Kagti’s film highlights the nearly insurmountable difficulties Indian players faced when the nation gained freedom — and yet emerged victorious. Hockey becomes a metaphor for the typical Indian story of struggle, ambition and achievement. Both films also serve the purpose of shining a light on a game we excel in, just like Chak De India did. It’s about winning against all odds, the Indian way.
That sport can connect with audiences at all levels is evident from Mary Kom — the story of a Manipuri female boxer from Manipur. While many in India would struggle to locate the North Eastern state on the map, her story of empowerment wooed audiences and reflected that an "outsider" earning glory for the country has universal appeal as cinematic content. The strongest examples of this earthy connect of competitive sports based films are Sultan and Dangal. One is an endearing story about a wrestler from Haryana who masters kushti and fights in an akhada. The second draws from a real life story to build resonance in favour of women's empowerment through wrestling. Wrestling has rarely made national headlines in print. But in cinema, it has gone on to score many hundreds of crores and massive fan clubs. And it’s a desi game with a legacy in Indian history... just like boxing, and contact sports are for Manipuri youth — for once, a level playing field beyond regional prejudice.
It’s on oft-repeated lament — Indian governments and state governments don’t invest in sports. But neither does the Indian media, as it focuses on cricket, and celebrity-driven sport primarily. Achievements of local sportspersons and national level competitions are never brought into he public discourse, and rarely applauded. Lack of readership is cited as a reason. But here, Hindi cinema has picked up rooted stories, with universal resonance and patriotic fervour. In a film industry where original writing is infrequently seen, cinematically telling stories about desi sports is a smart choice. Inadvertently, it is also doing a greater service to the cause of Indian sport — for focusing on our achievements across different sports and games is a solid way of reminding the public of all that we can achieve, and are capable of, in the sporting field.
Updated Date: Jan 13, 2018 14:48:14 IST