Indian director Anurag Kashyap is onto something with his latest movie, Mukkabaaz. The sports biopic set in Uttar Pradesh does not attempt to glorify its subject or make it a conventional story of triumph.
Recent Bollywood biopics such as M.S. Dhoni and Azhar — based on former Indian cricket team captains M.S. Dhoni and Mohammad Azharuddin — or boxing champion story Mary Kom, have all been guilty of painting an untainted, almost infallible and glossy portrait of India’s superlative sporting legends. A few of them have also been accused of being shamelessly manipulative. But the provocative Gangs of Wasseypur director claims he has ducked all those cinematic cliches in Mukkabaaz, out in the UAE on January 11.
“All sports movies are celebratory and they don’t delve deeper into someone other than revelling in how they emerged victorious… But Mukkabaaz is about an underdog sport. It’s not a film about cricket. Everyone knows all about cricket or they think they know everything about it. Boxing, nobody [in India] knows much about it,” Kashayap told Gulf News tabloid! over the phone.
According to the director, boxing is symbolic of a sport that works towards the “upliftment of the downtrodden” all over the world. In Mukkabaaz, the director takes an obsequious genre like biopics and gives it his own gritty spin. It will revolve around an insignificant sport in India like boxing and is told from the perspective and life lessons learnt by an equally insignificant boxer playing at the district-level, not the world or national level championships.
“It was very liberating and it allows you to do things which are other biopics don’t allow you to do. Lot of biopics here have been made to celebrate heroes who don’t want their inabilities to be put up on screen. They all seem invincible. But I didn’t have to do any of that in Mukkabaaz,” Kashyap said.
Featuring a set of obscure but hugely talented actors such as Vineet Kumar Singh, who was Kashyap’s discovery in films including the crime saga GOW and Ugly, and Zoya Hussain, Mukkabaaz also addresses caste politics, cow vigilantism and religious intolerance in Kashyap’s home state of Uttar Pradesh.
So, is he worried about offending the sensibilities of Indians, especially keeping in mind that films such as Padmavat have faced multiple hurdles due to its content.
“I don’t think the film is trying to do anything offensive. I want to show that it [concept of caste] is ingrained in us so much that it has become a part of our day-to-day living and none of us can escape it. The film isn’t about one set of caste people attacking the other people. It is about casteism that we face on a daily basis,” said Kashyap, giving the example of how the film portrays an upper caste member refusing to drink the water touched by a lower caste person. He also touches upon reverse casteism in his film, where a lower caste sportsman who has been downtrodden, treats an upper caste member shabbily when he tastes success.
But the primary issue of this film isn’t caste, but a love story between a boxing hopeful from a lower caste, Shravan Singh (Singh), who falls in love with Sunaina Mishra (Hussain), who comes from an upper caste family.
She’s speech-impaired, but isn’t deaf, while he’s a struggling boxer. However, sparks fly between the two. Jimmy Shergill, who plays the local, powerful goon with a strong political connect, is the antagonist.
Co-written by Singh, the actor penned the initial script of Mukkabaaz by gleaning his own personal experiences as a national-level basketball player. He decided to shop for producers and directors with that script in hand. But the former basketball player-turned-Ayurvedic doctor-turned-actor had just one condition. He will play the role of the boxer in Mukkabaaz. A string of rejections spread over three years awaited him. The script found many takers but nobody wanted to cast him in the lead role, until he met Kashyap.
“Everyone I met before him said, do some other role or we will take the script and you can take some money. But I did not give up… After going with the script in search of backers for three years, I met Kashyap just to get his feedback. He read the script and his phone call was the one thing that every actor prays for,” said Singh.
Kashyap laid down some ground rules too. Kashyap demanded complete freedom to alter the script based on his know-how and insisted that Singh learn professional boxing.
“I packed everything after that call and stayed in Patiala in Punjab, training for nearly two years. I earned lots of injuries, my ribs got fractured, my forehead was bleeding … boxing is not easy but my body began responding slowly after some training,” said Singh.
The other trainees in the boxing camp had no idea that he was an aspiring actor who has gone undercover to learn the ropes of the sport, but they mocked him and questioned his life choices for learning to box so late in his life.
“During my training, I met many Shravan Kumars [his character in Mukkabaaz]. It opened a new world for me because just by observing I tried to understand their psyche and attempted to profile them,” said Singh. The film also touches upon how many take up sports to qualify for a job under the reservations quota, and not for the love of the game.
For Hussain, her preparation for her role wasn’t bloody but it was equally demanding.
The actress who has a theatre background, with roots in Dubai, learnt sign language under the tutelage of Sangeeta Gala, an instructor who was on call to train actors for films including Black, Khamoshi and Barfi!.
“Sunaina is symbolic of the voiceless women of today. But she’s feisty and aggressive… We wanted to show that just because she doesn’t have a voice, it doesn’t mean they are not important,” said Hussain, adding that Kashyap’s films have always featured bold, brassy women.
All her might went into transforming Sunaina into a “real person” who’s accessible to her viewers. Hussain even tried to abstain from talking before her shoot to get into the skin of her role and so that she isn’t in the habit of mouthing the words first. The film could be a game-changer, believes its crew.
“The main focus of Mukkabaaz is on patriarchy and casteism. It explores how women have become second class citizens… But it also shows how a woman can blossom if given an opportunity. Women are wired to multi-task,” said Hussain.
Just like the actors, even director Kashyap wanted to keep the film real. He didn’t want to pull any fake punches when it came to showcasing the grim, regressive realities of India, where caste politics rules.
“I like my films to be chaotic, noisy. I like to capture things as they are. I never try to alter the space. I take my story and fit it into that space,” said Kashyap.
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Mukkabaaz releases in UAE cinemas on January 11.