Mukkabaaz (UA) 155 min

Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Jimmy Shergill, Zoya Hussain, Ravi Kisen

Direction: Anurag Kashyap

Rating: ***

Suparna Sharma

Mukkabaaz opens with a shot of gau matas standing benignly in the headlights of a truck, next to frantic screams and beatings by men who have hidden their faces with gamchas but are recording in tight close-up dazed faces of their victims while ordering them to say, “Bol inko marne le ja raha tha. Bol.”

By current standards of crime and punishment, the political daring of Anurag Kashyap — the director and one of six writers of Mukkabaaz — could invite sedition charges, death threats, morchas around the country demanding a ban, apart from, of course, the tag of being an anti-national who needs to relocate to Pakistan.

Especially since this opening scene is not critical to the film’s plot. But, it is not superfluous either. It is intrinsically connected to the world in which his film is set.

But, gau politics is in his film by choice.

It burnishes the credentials of Anurag Kashyap the fearless director, and Anurag Kashyap the secular Indian, of course. But, more importantly, it’s there to show these gau hatyas for what they really are.

In a world where caste is politics — a world split between those who proudly say their name with a special emphasis on the surname and those who meekly say Kumar at the end of their name, and then wait for the dreaded question, “Pura naam?” — beef is the most convenient ruse to settle scores, personal and pushtaini.

It adds a nice layer to the plot of Mukkabaaz, a film that scores high on politics, but also one that can barely contain the incredible performance of its lead actor, Vineet Kumar Singh.

Mukkabaaz is set in Uttar Pradesh, in a world where bigotry of all kinds is frequent and flagrant, and is treated with a strange deference given that it emanates from higher beings, i.e. upper caste men.

It tells the story of Shravan Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh), a boxer with small means and small dreams. Unlike others who are basically boxing for two possible outcomes — become the bodyguard of some VIP, or land a sarkari naukri on sports quota — Shravan is good and wants to box for the country.

But who gets to do that depends entirely on Bhagwan Das Misha (Jimmy Shergill). He controls the lives of boxers beyond the limits of his district, Bareilly.

Pretty early in the film Shravan challenges and humiliates Mishra because he resents being ordered around to do menial chores. And soon, both his career and love life depend on the man he has insulted. And despite the advise of friends and well-wishers, he refuses to grovel and drink Mishra’s piss. Literally.

Shravan’s love story began with his defiance, but was initiated by Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Mishra’s niece who can’t speak.

Here on, the film is about Shravan trying to get a shot at boxing at the district, and then the state level. En route we are treated to the politics of Indian sport. Here, caste is always at play. As are men with fragile egos and penile issues. Those not deserving the benevolence of powerful mai-baap coaches are ignored, cheated of their chances. And if they still manage to get ahead, their lives, families are threatened.

Mukkabaaz, like most of Kashyap’s films, has great songs. But the one that resonates with meaning and an enraged ultimatum is the song by lyricist Hussain Haidry, Bahut hua samman, teri aisi taisi… 

To me, it chides two groups.

The small group of upper caste, petty, patriarchal men in the film, of course — men who have and wield power in the most corrosive, disempowering way. Men who, driven by a deadly mix of frustration and ego, swing their phallus till all genuflect to its impressive size and skill.

But to me the song was also an aisi-taisi taunt to big Bollywood.

Dekhiye, aisa hai, that when big stars of big Bollywood play “real” characters, or characters that require some sort of physical challenge, an incestuous ecosystem of commerce comes alive.

It begins with coy but calculated whispers about a star’s “new look”, followed by a shocking, strategic, accompanied-by-photos revelation of the “look”. This demands investigation by entertainment journalists, i.e. meetings organised by PR people with stars where they reveal how tough and transformative the process of physical renovation was.

Soon, magazine covers get assigned, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram drip-feed fans, and there are brand endorsements inside and outside the film.

In the film, a lot of time is spent showing us just how rippled those muscles are. Veins, blue-blue ones, pop up and the camera goes closer to stare — admiring, caressing the tiniest twitch, the pretty beads of sweat.

The whole movie is relegated to being a vehicle for this OMG makeover. I.E. the super lame Mary Kom and that super annoying Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

There’s a fragment of a predictable story as the film is populated by characters who are either devoted to marvelling at the star, or are jealous and thus trying to jeopardise the star’s climatic, glorious moment.

No character gets screen time, and the milieu doesn’t matter.

So, then, Mukkabaaz, is a relief.

Its hero has a six-pack that’s simply a requirement of a man playing a boxer.

It’s also a movie where the villain makes the screen sizzle, and who is just one of many engaging, interesting characters who have real roles with nice, crackling lines.

On top of that, without much ado, Mukkabaaz is about a love affair between a girl who can’t speak, and a man who is not seduced by his own devotion, excellence or talent.

Shravan flits between a frustrating job, a demanding relationship, and practice sessions with a coach who mostly seems disappointed in him.

And when he is boxing in the ring, competing, it’s not in a stadium packed with cheering, tiranga-leharaoing extras.

Shot in real spaces, boxing bouts in Mukkabaaz take place in desolate, sad stadiums which seem to lack the basics.

And, of course, it has that one thing most of big Bollywood cringes from: Politics.

Mukkabaaz doesn’t just open with gau matas. Cow politics appears again. Twice. Once when a pateela full of biryani is delivered to the house of Shravan’s Harijan coach, Sanjay Kumar (Ravi Kisen), and later, when Shravan beats up Mishra while shouting, with each angry punch, “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.

Problem is that Mukkabaaz is 30 minutes too long.

While its dialogue are fast and furious, and the colloquial exchanges bring to life scenes, characters with a strong cow-belt flavour, it also has long, sleepy spells where men are boxing forever, without much drama.

The film has crackling scenes, especially the ones involving Jimmy Shergill, Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain. But these stunning scenes, sadly, remain separate parts that don’t quite come together.

Mukkbaaz has an excellent ensemble of cast. All roles, including the really tiny ones, are entrusted to accomplished actors. Watching the south Indian official at the railway office I felt that if I were to ever visit, I’d find him there.

Shergill, who plays Mishra with one bad eye, is menacing when he wants to be. And when he doesn’t, he’s simply an impending threat in repose. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Vineet’s Shravan is often slighted, leading to outbursts that heat up the screen with the rage of a man who is physically confident and daunting, but is not getting a chance to show it in the ring.

Zoya Hussain uses her entire body and delivers a razor-sharp performance. Her Sunaina is a girl in defiance, communicating her defiance in sign language. She is exquisite, unforgettable.