In Anurag Kashyap’s “Mukkabaaz” (Boxer), the sport is out of focus – a sort of diffused background that serves to highlight the social and political ills the director wants to emphasize in this 155-minute film.
Shravan (Vineet Singh) is a boxer in Bareilly (a town in Uttar Pradesh), training under his despotic coach Bhagwan Mishra (Jimmy Sheirgill), who would rather have his wards run errands and cook meals for him than train seriously. When Shravan falls for the coach’s pretty but mute niece Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), things go sour between teacher and protege. Shravan lands a few punches on Bhagwan, and breaks away from him.
Bhagwan, a Brahmin strongman with a mean streak, uses his muscle power and clout to make Shravan’s life miserable. Director Kashyap seems determined to put his hero through the wringer. Shravan faces every hardship you could think of – a struggle to earn a living with a lowly job in the railways, corrupt officers who put hurdles in his path, and the looming spectre of Bhagwan out for revenge.
“Mukkabaaz” has five writers, and it seems they each had an issue they wanted amplified. Kashyap packs in cow slaughter, caste politics, apathy towards sports and sportsmen, and the romance between Sunaina and Shravan. In doing so, he diverts the audience’s attention. There’s too much going on, too many plot contrivances and conveniences.
“Mukkabaaz” begins with a scene of men being lynched for stealing cows, but other than to emphasize that the film is set in the caste cauldron that is Uttar Pradesh, it serves no purpose. Indeed, caste is an important theme in the film, but Kashyap chooses to tell rather than show.
Bhagwan prefixes every other sentence with “I am a Brahmin” and other characters talk about caste sporadically, but it is never clear if Shravan and Sunaina would have been happier if they had been the right caste.
For all its flaws, “Mukkabaaz” has some great performances, especially from its leading man. Vineet Singh is pitch-perfect as the boxer who refuses to kowtow. Ravi Kishan as the man who backs him is wonderfully restrained and a joy to watch on screen. Zoya Hussain as Sunaina uses her doe eyes to great effect in the absence of dialogue, but her body language and personality do not fit the small-town, conservative girl mould and she seems miscast.
Sports in India is much more than just the game and Kashyap tries to throw the spotlight on that, but he tries to land too many punches, and in doing so, misses the mark.