15 January 2018

Heart of darkness

With Mukkabaaz, Anurag Kashyap has gone where many might fear to tread, crafting a picture of present day North India whose zingy energy doesn't quite hide its depressing core.

The marvellous Jimmy Shergill as Bhagwan Das Mishra in Mukkabaaz
It would be a mistake to go into Mukkabaaz expecting a sports film. The hero might be desperate to win a boxing championship, but his real battles are not in the ring. For the talented small fish trying to make his way up from the bottom, the entire Indian food chain seems to consist of big fish that want to be fed – or they'll gobble him up. Director Anurag Kashyap seems so keen for us to understand this that he makes his Shravan Kumar pretty much invincible as a boxer: the self-proclaimed Mike Tyson of Uttar Pradesh knows he can beat all his opponents – and after a while, so do we.

So while the film's many boxing scenes are painstakingly crafted: taut, grimy, often gripping, all the drama in Mukkabaaz lies outside them. And the stage for it to unfold are the bylanes of Bareilly: a town that seems to have truly arrived in the country's cinematic imagination, with Kashyap close on the heels of 2017's Bareilly ki Barfi and Babumoshai Bandookbaaz. With Mukkabaaz the fictive possibilities of the contemporary UP small town are exploited in the best way -- by hewing as close to the headlines as its characters' realities will allow, and then digging underneath them for unvarnished truths that aren't seen as fit to print.

Much of the unprintable is spoken by the man who can only be called the film's villain: the superb Jimmy Shergill as the boxing-coach-cum-bahubali who plays God in this universe, acting under the deliberate name of Bhagwan Das Mishra. And much of it revolves around caste. “Sauda toh kar nahi rahe,” says Bhagwan in one scene. “Brahmin hain, aadesh dete hain. [I'm not making a deal here. I'm a Brahmin, I give orders.]” At another crucial juncture, he proposes that Shravan drinks his urine, calling it “amrit”.

Elsewhere, he humiliates a rival coach (Ravi Kissen, doing justice to a rare interesting role) with the pointed question “Sanjay Kumar what? Brahman ho, Kshatriya ho, Kayastha ho, kya?” And when Kumar straightforwardly states his caste as “That fourth jaat that you're unable to even name: Harijan”, Bhagwan makes sure to rub his face in it by calling for a separate water container for the Dalit. Shergill's menacing gaze through rose-tinted spectacles in this scene is a remarkable visual touch: the English metaphor for a too-optimistic view of the world is turned on its head.

Certainly this is not an optimistic film. It almost makes us believe that it is, by handing us an old-style unreconstructed love-at-first-sight narrative between a sad-eyed struggling hero we can root for – the brilliant Vineet Kumar Singh, who is also the originator of the script – as well as a heroine whose muteness thankfully doesn't ever prevent her from having her say (Zoya Hussain, also superb). That illusion is aided by conducting us through their courtship and Shravan's career with Kashyap's usual dizzying energy, with much of the action cut to an immersive, subversive soundtrack and clap-worthy lines crafted out of the everyday wit that the North Indian town uses to cope with its dysfunction. 
This must be the only film in which boxing moves have appeared on screen marvellously in tandem with hiphop at one point and the murkis in a gentle, almost Hindustani classical song at another. But this is an adrenalin high, not meant to be sustainable. This is a world that is, after all, controlled by Bhagwan, who is, in some ways, another version of the petty, power-hungry sarkaari sports official who unmystifyingly recurs in Indian films about sporting underdogs: think of Girish Kulkarni's character in Dangal, or Zakir Hussain's devious Dev in 2016's Saala Khadoos.

But the reason why Jimmy Shergill's Bhagwan seems more frightening than those men is that he represents the dark heart of the New India – which is unfortunately just an emboldened, lawless version of the old.

In an era when a film like Padmavat(i), with what appears to be its overt celebration of 'Rajput' valour and barely-disguised vilification of the meateating Muslim as uncivilised, somehow manages to be identified with courageous filmmaking, Kashyap's fearlessness makes one want to cheer. Mukkabaaz's fictional depiction of how gau-raksha and the spectre of beef are used to shut down inconvenient voices is both chilling and entirely credible. There is also another long-drawn sequence in which caste plays an overt role, and here it is an OBC character – a Yadav, to be precise – who decides to rub Shravan's nose in the dirt because he thinks he is Rajput. Kashyap's script leaves a deliberate loophole on the question of Shravan's 'real' caste.

Whatever one one thinks of this script decision, or of the fact that the Yadav character's attempt at caste payback earns him only nasty humiliation, Mukkabaaz deals with our darkest selves, head on. 

This is a world where the most soaring dreams must be dreamt without recourse to the rules of justice or fair play. Dysfunction is assumed, and incorporated into plans. Whether it is expressed in a don harassing a family by sending a henchman to keep cutting off their (permanent) illegal electricity connection (the “katiya” that was at the centre of the documentary Katiyabaaz), or in strategizing how to defeat an opponent whom one knows full well is on steroids but cannot report because the system will not listen, Mukkabaaz depicts a world beyond the hope of law. And in this world, to win can mean losing.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Jan 2018.

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