Mukkabaaz and the Many Punches Indian Sportsmen Get

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Mukkabaaz and the Many Punches Indian Sportsmen Get

Illustration: Palak Bansal

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n the second half of Anurag Kashyap’s ambitiously audacious Mukkabaaz, Shravan Singh (a flawless Vineet Kumar Singh), a lower-caste boxer from Bareilly arrives for the District Boxing Championships with his coach (Ravi Kishan) in tow. It’s a defining moment for Shravan, who has been denied a chance to represent the state for the last two years due to his caste, despite being proved the best boxer in Uttar Pradesh. It doesn’t help that Shravan is also at loggerheads with Bhagwan Das Mishra (a menacing Jimmy Shergill), the man who runs the federation like his personal fiefdom and who is adamant to ruin Shravan’s career even before it begins.

But before Shravan gets the chance to prove himself, he and the audience are treated to a curious sight: The ground that where the championship was supposed to take place has been taken over by the sports minister who is hosting a wedding there. Trumpets are blown, where punches should have been thrown. Left with no other choice, the competing boxers and coaches set out to construct a makeshift ring.

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This little scene in Mukkabaaz is emblematic of the larger rut in the Indian sporting system, where corruption, nepotism, and negligence reign supreme. It’s a scene that’s so eerily real that it might have been simultaneously unfolding in any dusty Indian town. For sportsmen in India not only have to overcome widespread bias, regional politics, and the frustrating bureaucracy, but also the very system that was built to help them. To be a sportsman in India, talent is never enough.

A few minutes after the competition starts, the boxers are instructed to stop the match midway and stand in respect for “ministerji” who has decided to take time out of the wedding and grace the event with his esteemed presence. He gives a comic address that heaps praise on Uttar Pradesh being the state of Dhyan Chand, Mohammad Kaif, and Muhammad Ali. It takes him a moment to realise his inaccuracy, which he corrects by proclaiming that Muhammad Ali is actually from Kerala. It’s a clever and hilariously true portrait of a country where sports ministers are gloriously clueless about the intricacies of sport, the funds required to further the cause (which in most cases hardly reach the athlete), and the round-the-year attention that every budding sportsmen deserves.

Mukkabaaz

Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz is a resounding ode to those numerous fighters populating India, the ones who are too tired or marred by bad luck to even make it to the big stage.

Image credit: Phantom Films, Colour Yellow Productions

Instead, they choose to wake up only during the Olympics or to announce a lofty reward, demanding results from athletes whenever it suits them without investing in them. There’s a reason why India, the most populous country in the world boasts of such a dismal tally at every international sporting event. The fault, clearly, does not lie in our sports stars.

In India, a sportsman’s struggle for respect, legitimacy, support, and even monetary benefits is fraught with so many insurmountable challenges that most aspiring athletes treat excelling at sports as a mere prop to land a government job. It’s like what Shravan’s father tells him during one of the many altercations that the two have, “Dhyan Chand hockey khel ke ghar nahi chala paya. Tum mukkabaazi karke chalaoge?” It’s a frighteningly real comment on the apathy that we reserve for our athletes once the medals have come home. After their time in the limelight, they’re left to fend for themselves, relegated to a life of poverty and disrespect.

Mukkabaaz is no mere “sports film”, where an underdog protagonist rises against an established opponent and is then afforded a happy ending.

Mukkabaaz then is no mere “sports film”, where an underdog protagonist rises against an established opponent and is then afforded a happy ending. It is instead a proper “Indian sports film” where the protagonist has to slug it out against poverty, casteism, nepotism, politics, egos, and even saffronisation before even thinking of their sport. Even before they become athletes, they have to be. But as Mukkabaaz highlights, everytime we demand a fighter spirit from a sportsman and force him to sacrifice, we lose an athlete. Representing a country, or a state, or a district becomes a lonely, individual pursuit.

Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz is a resounding ode to those numerous fighters populating India, the ones who are too tired or marred by bad luck to even make it to the big stage. As is the case with Shravan in the film, his talent and passion can help him become a “mukkabaaz” (brawler), but never a “mukkebaaz” (boxer). And there’s no greater tragedy than that.

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