‘The Brawler’ (‘Mukkabaaz’): Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain in 'The Brawler.'
Energetic, cinematic, political and not just for sports fans.

Aspiring boxer Vineet Kumar Singh fights the system that tries to exclude him in Anurag Kashyap’s romantic drama.

Writer-director-producer Anurag Kashyap is back at the top of his game in The Brawler (Mukkabaaz), an unconventional boxing film and love story that offers a barbed critique of India’s much-abused caste system, religious intolerance and the political corruption that permeates society. A hybrid genre of his own devising combines Bollywood mainstream action and pacing (and length: the film is a full two and a half hours) with art house themes and engrossing characters. Packed with energy, humor, melodrama and fun, the Stray Dogs release has a wider appeal than for just sports buffs. It should please Kashyap’s international fan base, even if the story is small-scale and more soberly realistic than his iconic Gangs of Wasseypur.

It’s good to see the filmmaker is moving forward into new territory after a pair of depressingly dark thrillers, Ugly and Raman Raghav 2.0, and a salute to Martin Scorsese and the American gangster film in Bombay Velvet. Though the basic plot about a despised underdog who, against overwhelming odds, grits his teeth and trains for the big match could hardly be less cliched, its cinematic level of invention makes sure that much more is going on.

Thematically recalling the 2014 biopic Mary Kom that had Priyanka Chopra rolling with the punches as India’s great Olympic woman boxing champ, this story about the rise of a local fighter to national competition is also inspired by true events. Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh in his third acting turn for Kashyap) is a muscle-bound guy from Uttar Pradesh who is training under abusive boss Bhagwan Das (played with icy villainy by Jimmy Shergill). Das also happens to be the head of the boxing federation and a ruthless politician-gangster (the distinction is blurry) with a lot of clout. When they get into a tiff and Shravan lands a punch on Das’ face, time stands still. A frantic chase begins, with the boss’ henchmen in hot pursuit of the would-be boxer.

These are likely the same lackeys who beat the living daylights out of a man in the opening scene to the tune of “Praise Lord Rama!” When they berated their victim as a “cow trader,” probably meaning a Muslim who eats beef or works in the leather trade, they aligned themselves with those Hindu extremists on the religious right who are behind lynchings and similar horrors. In this very succinct action scene, Kashyap neatly shows how mob violence is a political tool in the hands of kingpins like Das. He runs his own dirty show, using religion as an excuse to humiliate others over their lower caste: he’s a Brahmin, and Shravan a mere kshatriya (but appropriately, it's the caste of warriors and kings.)

No one is asking for linearity in this happy jumble of a film, and romance soon adds to the medley. In the midst of his feud with Bhagwan Das and running for his life, Shravan is distracted by the vision of a lovely girl who boldly stares back at him. This is Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), another of Kashyap’s unforgettable brassy female characters. She has a mind of her own and contemptuously ignores the tyranny of her uncle Das. Similarly, she refuses the label of handicapped just because she can’t speak. With casual cool, she uses her computer and cell phone to converse with Shravan, and there is more comedy than pathos in their occasional moments of incomprehension.

Das holds a personal grudge against the boxer and will do everything in his power to keep him from marrying his niece and from advancing to the National Boxing Championships. The young couple’s courtship and Shravan’s career seem doomed from the start. But a simple genre switch from realistic drama to ironic social comedy moves the story forward into a loud, colorful Indian wedding.

And this is just the first part of the film, which ranges over Shravan's training, Indian style, many run-ins with the law and examples of gross injustice. It may seem surprising that each new obstacle the authorities throw up to stop him from being a contender is met by the protagonist with more resignation than anger. And there is a lot of injustice. For instance, his opponents are bursting with steroids they don’t bother to conceal, while his muscles are the hard-won type earned with nonstop exercise like swimming the Ganges. What the dastardly Das cooks up for Sunaina tips the film into melodrama.

As the steel-willed boxer, Singh vaunts the discipline and the physique du role, but sometimes lacks charisma, something sparkling newcomer Hussain has in spades.

Though it’s easy to dismiss Shergill’s Bhagwan Das as a cardboard villain, he well represents the arrogance and violence of those who exercise power. The cruelty he demonstrates toward his own family members, all in the name of hurting a youth who has insulted him, is a sickening spectacle that the too-easy ending can’t erase.The last scenes are, in fact, among the weakest, when the screenwriters' prolific imaginations seem to fail.

Along with exciting, densely packed visuals shot by four cinematographers, the music track is one of the film’s main assets: loud, pounding, mocking and controlling. The songs that briefly interrupt the action remind the audience that Kashyap still has strong ties to Bollywood esthetics.

Production companies: Colour Yellow Productions, Phantom Films, Jar Pictures
Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Zoya Hussain, Ravi Kissan, Jimmy Shergill, Sadhana Singh
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Screenwriters: Anurag Kashyap, Vineet Kumar Singh, Mukti Singh Srinet, K. D. Satyam, Ranjan Chandel, Prasoon Mishra
Producers: Aanand L. Rai, Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena, Anurag Kashyap
Executive producer: Ajay Rai Kanupriya
Director of photography: Rajeev Ravi, Shanker Raman, Jay Patel, Jayesh Nair
Production designer: Shazia Iqbal
Editor: Aarti Bajaj, Ankit Bidyadhar
Music: Rachita Arora
World sales: Stray Dogs
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
153 minutes

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