To start with the review, let me first address the most important aspect of the film or at least as the title suggests – boxing. The actors throwing punches at each other and ducking and blocking those really looked like boxing, both in the alleys of Bareily and in the ring. That is really something given Bollywood’s record of disrespecting sports by either filming sports moves with lack of authenticity or expecting that realism in movie-sports don’t apply as long as you have a charming actor facing the camera. Of course, movies these days are really going an extra mile to make sports look legit on screen – Dangal, Saala Khadoos (Mary Kom – as in the movie – was so lame), Chak De India are some good examples.
Sports on screen looks only as good as the commitment of the actor pretending to play it, and Vineet Kumar Singh, who plays an aspiring boxer in Mukkabaaz, looks every bit a boxer, right from his boxing moves to his physique to his gait. You can see the level of commitment this actor has shown for the film; it is way more than make-believe. Full marks there for commitment.
Mukkabaaz (The Brawler), even with its overriding themes of ambition and love against all odds which inevitably clash with each other, is a story of oppression and people rising against it. With the opening shot – a gang of gau-rakshaks or cow vigilantes clobbering a couple of people for allegedly trafficking cattle for slaughter and recording it for circulation – Anurag Kashyap introduces a politically charged atmosphere, where crime against the minority is the order of the day. While Kashyap doesn’t further indulge in commentary on communal politics (except in one more scene in the middle of the movie), he expands on the issues of caste, gender, and boxing – a sports equivalent of the marginalized in India.
Shravan Singh (Vineet) is the best boxer in Bareily, and under the tutelage of Bhagwan Das Mishra (Jimmy Shergill), a former boxer and now a local gangster cum sports promoter, he aspires to make a name for himself as a boxer. Ever heard that love has the power to raise people out of their miserable existence? Well, Shravan Singh discovers just that when he sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Mishra’s mute niece and is quickly inspired to defy Mishra by refusing to do his bidding. Mishra takes a punch to his face and his upper-caste male ego, and from then on takes up the task to ruin Shravan’s boxing career. Things spiral out of hand when Sunaina, who falls for Shravan for standing up against her uncle, and Shravan decides to marry. To add salt to Mishra’s wounds, even Sunaina’s parents decide to set caste aside and bless the marriage.
That was just the skeleton of the movie. To get to the dense flesh you have to watch the film. At one point in the film, Ravi Kishan’s character, an upright boxing coach, tells Shravan to decide whether he wants to be a ‘mukkebaaz’ (boxer) or a ‘mukkabaaz’ (brawler), whether he wants to waste his talent fighting the system from outside the ring or make a future fighting it from within. This becomes a metaphor for the struggle of life – where you either brawl your way to glory or fight the hurdles while still playing by the rules of life -.as well as Kashyap’s own relation to the movie industry. I wonder could the ending of the movie be any reference to his experience of going mainstream with Bombay Velvet.
While a large portion of the movie is about Shravan’s fight against system and caste to realize his dreams and Mishra’s evil plans to sabotage Shravan’s career and his marriage, a tender loves story blooms amid all the hate and brawling. Shravan and Sunaina’s love is so intricately woven with the rest of the fight, that Shravan’s every fight becomes a fight not just for his boxing dreams or to defy social norms but also for his love for Sunaina. And as all of these motivations come together, we get a climactic fight that is cathartic, to say the least.
Zoya Hussain gives a knock out performance with her mute turn. She plays the role gracefully and with charm. There is no single emotion that she doesn’t manage to emote with just her eyes. The level of commitment that Hussain shows with her learning of over sign language is in no way second to Vineet’s. She portrays Sunaina’s love for Shravan, her angst at not being understood, he hatred and defiance of the patriarchy with deafening silence. It is not by the mere whim of the screenwriters that Sunaina is mute, it stands for the voicelessness of women who suffer every day at the hands of patriarchy. The rest of the cast also does a fantastic job and lends the movie a depth by assisting Kashyap and co-writers realize an immersive world which the film takes two and a half hour to build.
It is the storytelling talent of Kashyap, his sense of songs (great music by Rachita Arora, Prashant Pillai, and Nucleya) and dialogues that elevates what could have been another populist masala film by a lesser filmmaker. The way Kashyap weaves a tapestry of social issues around a masala framework and gives it a gritty and rustic treatment validates the point yet again that Kashyap is at his best when he walks the thin line between the commercial and the indie.