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Mukkabaaz (The Brawler) review – Bollywood boxing epic takes on caste injustice

Bristling … Vineet Kumar Singh as Shravan in The Brawler (Mukkabaaz)
Bristling … Vineet Kumar Singh as Shravan in The Brawler (Mukkabaaz)

An eclectic run of credits – bizarre psychothriller No Smoking (2007), Devdas update Dev D (2009), crime diptych Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) – have established writer-director-producer Anurag Kashyap as Hindi cinema’s foremost moderniser. He took a beating on Cotton Club-like period folly Bombay Velvet (2015), but his latest, Mukkabaaz (The Brawler) is a canny comeback bid: a heavy-hitting social critique disguised as a rock ’em-sock ’em sports movie. It follows the attempts of angry lower-caste boxer Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) to claw back personal and professional satisfaction after walloping the well-connected coach whose mute niece the boxer was wooing.

Kashyap’s own struggles to stay mobile within a stiflingly regulated, sometimes rigged system never seem very far from the surface. This film-maker’s preference for no-holds-barred realism over the prevailing comforts of melodrama manifests in characters who spit and curse, use the toilet and land genuinely wounding punches; the songs following them into battle mix the poetic with the colloquial (“I am as rough as a badger’s arse”).

Fiercely eloquent … Singh with Zoya Hussain
Fiercely eloquent … Singh with Zoya Hussain Photograph: PR

Yet the entire film proceeds to determinedly idiosyncratic rhythms. Kashyap is less beholden to the standard Rocky template (Shravan is such a pariah he can’t get near a gym) than to the eccentric indie-kid choices of 2010’s The Fighter, setting his camera to study the fractious corners his leads emerge from, and cutting away to a bodypopping bystander at one point, because he senses there’s a rhyme of sorts with Shravan’s niftier footwork. There’s a lot of dancing around – we get well-timed jabs at India’s rabble-rousing patriarchy, and the pressures developing nations put on their young – although Kashyap finds vivid focal points amid the brouhaha.

As the niece, Zoya Hussain makes her signing as fiercely eloquent as any pugilist’s fists, while the bristling Singh succeeds in persuading us he could lapse into thuggery but also scrub up quite handsomely, given the chance; he plays a big part in an early contender for 2018’s strongest closing image. What precedes it can feel jolting – Kashyap’s sound design alone could induce mild concussion – but it’s the work of a creative ducking Bollywood’s usual rules of engagement: a film to cheer and not to be messed with.

This article titled "Mukkabaaz (The Brawler) review – Bollywood boxing epic takes on caste injustice" was written by Mike McCahill, for The Guardian on Thursday 11 January 2018 11.00am

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