First, the verdict: Go watch Mukkabaaz.
Now, the warning: It won't be easy to take the punch.
It has been a while since Bollywood woke up to sports movies. In the last decade or so, the average Hindi film-goer has watched hockey (Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De India), athletics (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag), boxing (Mary Kom, Saala Khadoos), wrestling (Sultan, Dangal), and, of course, cricket (biopics on MS Dhoni and Md Azharuddin; and a documentary on Sachin Tendulkar).
They now know more than their previous generations did about how athletes and their coaches have to battle hardships, surmount odds, and shed blood, sweat and tears to reach the podium.
There has also been a Paan Singh Tomar, which tells a different tale – of a different India than the one that is normally played out on a screen near you. But Tigmanshu Dhulia's biopic of a medal winner-turned-gangster was from a different time.
What Anurag Kashyap does with Mukkabaaz is arrest you inside an arena that is today's India – Uttar Pradesh to be precise – for two-and-a-half hours. Then he unleashes the punches: patriarchy, caste, feudal mindsets, religious bigotry, violence as a way of life along with apathy, unemployment, a creaking bureaucracy – punches that many Indians take on your average day.
In Hindi, a 'mukka' is a punch. One who punches away would be a 'mukkabaaz'; change one vowel and you get 'mukkebaaz' – a boxer. Kashyap's film is about Shravan Singh, a young man from Bareilly who has dreamt of becoming a boxer even since he was a teenager.
Shravan is talented, confident and dedicated towards his passion. And proud and unbending: qualities that put him in confrontation with coach Bhagwan Das Mishra – who loves only one thing more than his Brahmin identity – himself.
Shravan's spunk wins over Bhagwan's niece Sunaina Mishra and their inter-caste affair – Shravan is a Thakur – only makes matter worse.
It becomes a tug of war between two forms of anger – the suppressed, suave anger of Mishra, who knows how to make the system work for him, and the raw anger of Shravan, who keeps knocking opponents out as much as he keeps knocking at the doors of the system.
Doors do open. Shravan is not alone. At unexpected turns of his he finds benefactors – those who recognise his talent. One of the most crucial among them is coach Sanjay Kumar who trains the protagonist to transform him from a 'mukkabaaz' to a 'mukkebaaz'. Can he transform? Eventually that is what the film is about.
The genesis of 'Mukkabaaz' is reportedly from a story by Vineet Kumar Singh, who plays Shravan. But it has the stamp of Anurag Kashyap – a Kashyap who is mature and reassured; not in a hurry to impress the world, not insecure about not getting to tell his tale.
Kashyap loves writing his films. In this case, four others apart from Kashyap and Singh were involved in the writing. The result is a uniquely layered film with rich social texture and subtexts. Characters have been etched well with a lot of physicality. Their shortcomings – Bhagwan can't have children and Sunaina can't speak – ably add as much commentary as do the rooted dialogues.
The people behind the lens – there are three, including old Kashyap favourite Rajeev Ravi – keep it riveted close to the ground and its characters, skillfully playing with a narrow space between the viewer and the subject. It would not be very easy for the actors to do their job in such frames, but the cast handles it well. Be it Jimmy Shergill as the impotent Bhagwan Das, or Ravi Kishen as Sanjay Kumar – who calls himself a Harijan, not a Dalit – they let their experience shine.
Newcomer Zoya Hussain as Sunaina is a discovery and carries on the tradition of strong female leads in Kashyap's films. The supporting cast is extremely competent too.
That brings us to Vineet, whose reason to write the film reportedly was his desire to play the role, and it shows. He has come a long way from being the Danish Khan of Gangs of Wasseypur and displays a high degree of ownership here.
Eventually, the film is made on the editing table by Kashyap's former spouse Aarti Bajaj and Ankit Bidyadhar. Their pacing sets the tone of the film and carries it through: not an easy task, considering the way Mukkabaaz has been constructed – the first half could be a complete film in itself.
Kashyap has been comfortable with showing 'small-town' India as much as he has been with the metropolis. But this film also has a stamp of Anand L Rai, one of the producers here, known mostly for Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhana – be it the casting of Shergill and Kishan, or the depiction of a typical UP town.
These are not easy times to make films which challenge social mores and call a spade just that. Kashyap's film opens with a gang of cow vigilantes and ends with 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' – in his characteristic style.