In his latest outing, director Anurag Kashyap pulls no punches. Every scene that’s in his lineage of movie making, is powerful; every scene that’s not, and unfortunately, there’s quite some of it, takes away the pace and the tension.
Don’t let the posters fool you. Mukkabaaz (The Brawler) isn’t a sports movie, not one where you traverse the familiar arc of a sportsman, as they aspire, perspire, stumble, achieve, stumble, aspire, perspire, and achieve, usually to the sound of the national anthem and the throb of national pride. No siree. Shravan Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh, who also co-wrote the movie with the director, among others) is a bundled up, manic force of energy, who’s serving the local don and protector in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill). Mishra also runs the local gym and also controls and decides who can participate in boxing matches at the regional and state level.
Very soon into the movie, Shravan falls afoul of Mishra, but not before falling for Mishra’s niece, Sunaina (Zoya Hussain). It’s head over heels for the couple, and brick over the head for the revolting Shravan. From here on, the movie plots multiple strata of stories – the love story between the couple, the tension between Shravan and Mishra, and Shravan’s single-minded focus to make into the boxing ring to compete. The three threads interconnect, and where they touch each other without the insulation of cinematic safety and tropes, the screen crackles with tension and sparks.
Director Kashyap can be unflinching in his take on life, and it is when he makes you flinch. He keeps the movie’s look rustic and bare-boned, thriving on the lack of pelf of its setting and its characters, and the production design by Shazia Zahid Iqbal is starkly evocative. It is when Kashyap and his cinematographic team (Rajeev Ravi, Shanker Raman, Jay Patel, Jayesh Nair) take you inside the belly of these households and keep you there is when you are stirred and shaken in equal measure. It is when the director slaps on you the caste politics and hatred that are not always obvious but simmering beneath the surface and the raison d’être for Mishra’s behavior and all that is wrong, is when you breathlessly hope for redemption.
To me, the thread containing the love story carried with it the dead weight of comic listlessness, courting and letter writing that seemed to only establish how much Shravan and Sunaina love each other. Yes, I got that in the first scene with a beautiful background score they see each other, for goodness’ sake. If this was another director, another milieu, it might have worked. It might seem unfair to Kashyap, who may roll his eyes and say, “Can’t I have some fun and romance?” To which I’d answer, “Yes, but life in your cinema hall offers so many exigent situations, you can’t afford to waste your time on such tripe.” Not when, further ahead, the director shakes himself out of it, and gets back on the path to raw, hideous tension. And that’s when Mukkabaaz works marvelously. If it isn’t a sports movie, it oughtn’t have been a soppy love story either, where it threatens to sink for a good while, making you despair at the sudden slack – especially after such a lovely interval calling card.
On the positive side, the background score by Prashant Pillai is a deadly upper cut jab to the enterprise. Very, very effective, throbbing with an energy and tautness that gives the movie an added punch.
There are other good things too – the character of Sanjay Kumar (Ravi Kishan) who, as Shravan’s coach, has a pivotal scene with Shergill’s Mishra – it’s the kind of scene you will always remember for all that it says and all that it doesn’t. The interplay between the two actors is superb, Shergill slouching insolently as only power and control can bestow, while Kishan, sitting upright, steady-eyed, radiates sincerity of purpose, and yet a subservient helplessness that tells you that no matter what, he can’t beat the system. Ravi Kishan’s performance is beautiful, down-to-earth, and understated. And in his explanation of the movie title do you first get a hint of things to come.
Then there’s Vineet Kumar Singh who threatens to burn the screen with his rage, sometimes with his strength, sometimes with the societal impotency that his character’s cursed with. He’s simply brilliant in a showdown scene with his father (a very good Rajesh Tailang), where he spews out a lifetime of frustration and hopelessness, stuck with a passion that’s seemingly neither a road to earning his way out of misery, nor his hope at impressing his father. While you marvel at Singh’s fitness and his amazing exercise routines, covetous even of his abilities, you wonder if the director agreed to showcase seemingly endless shots of perspiring flexibility just because he’d signed a clause with the actor.
As Sunaina’s mother, Sadhana Singh sparkles with courage and an inner strength that she magically draws out of a reservoir that earlier only reflected as poise and warmth. It’s a lovely performance. And as Sunaina, Zoya Hussain is an angelic find. Her eyes and facial expressions coruscate with such transparent and genuine luminescence, you can’t help be transfixed. Here’s to seeing more of the actor onscreen.
And with Mukkabaaz, Jimmy Shergill spawns a raw evil and villainy. The actor, with red-circled retinas that are never explained, but have been obviously caused by an injury during a fight, is simply brilliant. His presence is cause for concern, but thanks to his menacing act and the writing, his absence is even more disconcerting – for when you don’t know what the baddie’s up to is when the ominous cloud seems to hover even closer.
How you wish director Kashyap had snipped away those 40 minutes of song-and-exercise (the numbers by composer Rachita Arora and Nucleya are good, but they pour when they ought to have pattered) and let the screen explode unfettered. But then sometimes, as the director would happily testify, it’s best to lie low – in that, perhaps, is a victory that only the person letting things be can savor – and be content with being a mukkabaaz.
Mukkabaaz is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s violence and some scary moments on why you should steer clear of evil uncles.
Director Anurag Kashyap Running Time 2h 34 min
Writers Ranjan Chandel, Anurag Kashyap, Prasoon Mishra, Singh Srinet Mukti, K.D. Satyam, Vineet Kumar Singh
Stars Vineet Kumar Singh, Zoya Hussain, Jimmy Shergill, Ravi Kishan, Sadhana Singh
Genres Action, Drama, Sport
Watch the trailer of Mukkabaaz here: