21 Jan 2018 16:30 IST

Punching above his caste

'Mukkabaaz' ingeniously connects the dots between racial and caste-based oppression

Poor Jimmy Shergill. The sun might rise from the West one of these days but he shall continue to be wronged at the hands of Bollywood directors. From Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai to Bullet Raja to Tanu Weds Manu, in every mini-epoch during the last two decades, it is Shergill who has played the gallant loser, plying us with an increasingly weary set of half-smiles. The hero snatches away his girl. The villain pumps him with bullets. Little he can do, really, except grin and bear it, this festival of protagonism that loves to offer him up as ritual sacrifice. This is one of the reasons why Shergill’s most recent entry surprised me with its near-mythic overtones — and its neat subversion of protagonism.

In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, we are introduced to Shergill’s character, Bhagwan Das Mishra (a boxer-turned-strongman politician who practically runs boxing in Uttar Pradesh), when one of his underlings, a young bruiser called Shravan Kumar Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) clocks a solid right hook across his face. We are never shown Mishra’s face in the build-up to the punch, Kashyap shooting everything from either Mishra’s POV or right behind him. Slowly, as Mishra is still reeling under the impact of the blow, the camera pans around to reveal his face. He has one stone eye, a souvenir from an old boxing match, no doubt. The other eye is bloodshot. This is the face of a Big Bad who is more surprised than hurt, surprised at his authority being questioned — and that too at the hands of a lower caste.

For Mukkabaaz is, ultimately, a film about master and servant, raja-praja — and in India, this inevitably leads us to the caste system. Mishra is a Brahmin, an upper-caste don who views ruling as his birthright. In one scene, he expresses his distaste for negotiations by saying, “Hum saudaa nahi karte hain. Brahmin hai, aadesh dete hain” (We Brahmins do not negotiate, we order). Mishra’s autocratic behaviour (ordering wrestlers to run his household errands and so on) springs from Brahminical privilege. This is conveyed by some delicate touches throughout the film.

For example, the women in Mishra’s house are, as one might expect, mostly submissive. However, the one moment in the film where we hear them raise their voices (they remain invisible even here, though) is when Singh is carrying a freshly cut goat. They immediately — and loudly — caution him against bringing it to the kitchen. The cooking of meat can be tolerated, they clarify, but not in the same kitchen where their regular, vegetarian food is prepared every day. If Mishra-ji wants his daily dose of bakra (goat), like a good ex-wrestler, he will just have to get it made in the courtyard, next to the hand pump which is used to wash the meat. Autocrat or not, Mishra must allow this concession as a Brahmin man, lest his caste superiority be diluted.

The film’s titular brawler, Singh is a Bhumihar (in Bihar and UP, a landholding caste that observes proto-Brahminical rituals; it is often implied that Bhumihars are products of unions between Brahmin men and Rajput women or vice-versa). The film’s twin storylines — Shravan’s struggle to become a successful pro boxer, and his romance with the mute Sunaina, Mishra’s firebrand niece — are thus inextricably linked with caste, professional ‘networking’, and endogamy being crucial to north India’s caste set-up. Mukkabaaz, despite being yet another sports underdog story, stands apart as a rare mainstream Bollywood film where caste is at the heart of the story. And, I’d argue, it’s no coincidence that the sport in question is boxing.

All the greats

Ever since Rocky Balboa ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the boxing underdog film has held a special place in the hearts of fans around the world. We loved Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man, Denzel Washington in Hurricane, and, more recently, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale double-teaming it in The Fighter. There’s something about a down-on-luck boxer that coaxes instinctive, almost primal responses from the audience. And then there’s the question of race.

Race did not enter boxing via Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, although this confluence grabbed page one headlines only after the great man entered the ring. The truth is that race was always a big part of the vocabulary around boxing. Ever since Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world (in 1908), all the way up to Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Floyd Mayweather, racial epithets or racial posturing has been a part of boxing history. Black boxers were often derisively described as ‘street-smart’, which was white American for ‘probably criminal’. This not only referenced the stereotype of the African-American man as criminal, it also made a joke of the fact that, thanks to boxing, a lot of African-American men were either rescued from a life of crime or prevented from embarking on one in the first place.

Promoters, never the kind to miss a trick, used the race angle to the hilt, often with the help of the boxers themselves. In fact, this practice endures to this day. Mayweather vs Conor McGregor in 2017 was promoted with rather blatantly racial baiting on the part of both boxers — no doubt, on the advice of promoters/PR professionals who sought to exploit the current political climate in the US. From The Washington Post’s August 2017 report on the Mayweather-McGregor build-up, here’s an extraordinary passage:

“In promotional stops in Los Angeles and Toronto, McGregor said to Mayweather, ‘Dance for me, boy.’ In a subsequent tour stop in Brooklyn, following criticism of those remarks, McGregor explained he couldn’t be racist because he was ‘half-black from the belly button down’. He then thrust his pelvis as a gesture ‘for my beautiful black female fans.’ Mayweather has since stated many people believe McGregor is racist and dedicated the fight to ‘all the blacks around the world’.”

Caste-based oppression

What does all this have to do with caste? A lot and, moreover, this connection between racial and caste-based oppression is, by no means, a new idea. Marxist historians have long explored intersectional approaches of studying these narratives. Vijay Prashad, for example, has written the great little book Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, which explores the connections between Asian and African cultures, such as the Shaivites of Jamaica introducing the locals to ganja and dreadlocks.

Mukkabaaz, too, connects the dots between racial and caste-based oppression with a succession of clever conceits. For example, Shravan refers to himself, on more than one occasion, as ‘Uttar Pradesh’s Mike Tyson’. He does so even as he beats up an oppressive supervisor at work. In the second half of the film, Shravan decides to be coached by Ravi Kumar (Ravi Kishan, in a sparkling cameo), a Dalit ex-boxer who knows the way the wind blows. Ravi knows that his ward has been held back all these years by Mishra’s stranglehold over UP’s boxing federations. Lesser fighters have won laurels while Shravan languished on the bench, simply because of an accident of birth.

In a crucial scene, Ravi explains how in his childhood he dreamed of being a professional footballer after reading the rags-to-riches story of Pele, perhaps the greatest player of all time. But the upper-caste children of his neighbourhood simply would not let him play, handing out a brutal beating every time he entered the playground. And so it was that Ravi became a boxer. It is a wonderfully subtle nod to the emancipatory nature of sport even while underlining that no emancipation can ever truly transcend caste, class and so on. In the voiceover for the song Paintraa (Hindi for ‘manoeuvre’), Ravi passes on some sage advice to his ward:

Zyaada important hai kaun tumko jaanta hai, kaun tumko pehchaanta hai, kiska biwi bacha tumhraa fan hai, aur haan, bade ghar ki kanyaa pataane waala funda to haiye hai!” (What’s really important is who knows you, whose wife and kids are your fan — and, not to forget, the time-honoured trick of marrying a big man’s daughter.)

The song ‘Paintraa’, which forms the backdrop to Shravan’s training montage (a post-modern Eye of the Tiger, if you will), is itself a bridge between caste- and race-based narratives. Firstly, it is a Hindi hip-hop song set to EDM beats, sung by the Mumbai rapper Divine and composed by Nucleya. Hip-hop music is, and has always been one of the go-to chronicles of the African-American experience. Some hip-hop classics continue to be repurposed generation after generation. ‘Bring Da Ruckus’, a classic Wu Tang Clan number from the ’90s, for instance, was used in a marvellous action sequence in Marvel’s TV series Luke Cage recently — and one could scarcely think of a better soundtrack for a black superhero.

The lyrics of ‘Paintraa’ also speak of the constant ‘fight or flight’ choice facing the subaltern. Kisko salaam thonkegaa?/ kisko mukke se rokegaa? (Whom will you salute, bro?/ Whom will you stop with a blow?) wonders one line — Shravan can either lick Mishra’s boots or, well, lick him. In the caste-driven tyranny of UP, there is no middle ground.

It is worth noting that Mukkabaaz, in some ways Kashyap’s most linear film, is also bursting at the seams with sociopolitical ideas. My favourite scene is the one where Kashyap chooses to put the boot on the other foot: we see how Shravan, a victim for over 90 per cent of the film, can easily become the perpetrator of caste-based violence. We see Shravan routinely humiliated (and his precious training time looted) by an unthinking boss, who wishes to make him his whipping boy because he had grown up watching his father working for a Bhumihar.

One day, when Shravan has had enough, he slaps his boss and intimidates him physically (using the Tyson line, by the way) till the older man pees in his pants. Shravan films the act on his phone and informs his weeping, whimpering boss that the footage will be uploaded on the internet unless he behaves. This echoes an earlier scene in which Mishra asks Shravan to drink his urine, claiming that it is amrit, or ambrosia, with the power to make Shravan forgiven, ‘reborn’.

Shravan choosing to hurt his oppressor using the same elements (physical intimidation, urine) proves that for middle-class India, some ‘paintraas’ are learned quicker than others. And we have only caste to blame.

(Aditya Mani Jha is a commissioning editor with Penguin Random House. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)