‘Mary Kom’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Bollywood star and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra puts on her boxing gloves to play India’s 5-time world champ Mary Kom

MC Mary Kom may not be a household name to un-sporty audiences outside India. A five-time world champion in women’s boxing and still competing today, she put India on the map in this sport and became an inspiration for young women in her country looking to break out of traditional social roles. Bollywood actress-singer Priyanka Chopra also knows something about winning international titles: she was elected Miss World in 2000. Strange to tell, in Mary Kom these two famous ladies and their apparently opposite styles of femininity come together with fiery energy, even if the context is an overly familiar, poor-girl-makes-good tale of true grit. The ending is so rousing it should generate the cross-over energy and help Viacom 18 to win some adventurous commercial rings, though it is bound to score most of its points in Indian venues.  

Making his feature directing debut, art director Omung Kumar captures the indomitable fighting spirit of his heroine, but at the expense of an intriguing story, and until the film gains momentum Saiwyn Quadras’s screenplay feels like painting by numbers. It reaches a dismaying nadir in the climactic final scene as Mary, now the mother of twins, is about to step into the ring in a last-ditch effort to make a comeback and hold on to her title. Not the best moment to receive upsetting news, one would say, but the screenplay shows even less mercy than her loathsome German opponent. It’s a tribute to Chopra’s own grit as an actress that she overcomes trashy set-ups like these and, punch after punch, fills the screen with real emotion.

In the early scenes set in a village in Manipur in India’s far northeast, she is a tomboyish schoolgirl. Eyes flashing and fists flying, she hurls herself on village boys twice her size and won’t let them back down from a good fight. Over her father’s protests, she enrolls in a local boxing academy where her unwavering commitment earns the grudging respect of Coach Singh (legendary Nepalese actor Sunil Thapa.) Playing Clint Eastwood to her Hilary Swank, he trains his million rupee baby to keep her guard up and be fast on her feet. He also changes her name from Chungneizang to the catchier Mary Kom and oversees her first success as state champion, then preps her to take on the world, with no help from the corrupt Indian boxing federation. The latter does its best to place stumbling blocks on the champ's path, and the conflict between an evil bureaucrat and the hot-headed Mary illuminates some of the dirty backstage action in this particular sports world.

All this is told as a flashback to another dramatic moment in Mary’s life when she goes into labor one night during a curfew and a torrential rainstorm. Her good husband Onler (Darshan Kumar) gets beaten up by the police and they’re threatened by rebel fighters before they reach the hospital, but all ends well thanks to an unexpected plot twist. Mary’s difficulty in balancing her demanding career with motherhood is the real theme of the film, and her success in doing so through the help of her modern, understanding husband overturns a lot of stereotypes about India’s macho males. Kumar is a particularly good choice for the role, combining seductive good looks with self-sacrifice in the name of love and family. Typical of their relationship is the humorous scene of their first meeting, when inexperienced boxer Mary has just taken on a huge bruiser to earn money for her family and is the worse for wear. Driving her home, Onler’s motorbike stalls in the middle of a dark woods and he tries to reassure her he won’t take advantage of the situation. She archly replies, “Don’t worry, you’re safe with me.”

Production companies: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, Bhansali Productions
Cast: Priyanka Chopra, Darshan Kumaar, Sunil Thappa, Kenny Basumatary
Director: Omung Kumar
Screenwriter: Saiwyn Quadras
Producer: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Director of photography: Keiko Nakahara
Production designer: Vanita Omung Kumar
Editor: Rajesh G. Pandey
Music: Shivaam, Shashi
Sales: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures
No rating, 117 minutes

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