Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz elicited wolf whistles and applause at its Asia premiere when it opened the 19th Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) last week. The film could well be Kashyap’s most accessible — some may say his most populist — work yet. It’s a sports film, on boxing, and also a quintessential Bollywoodian love story. It is about politics and casteism — in sports, love, society and life in general. It is about false nationalism. It deals with ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ with a dose of sarcasm. But most of all it is about the filmmaker’s home State, Uttar Pradesh. Extracts from an interview.
There has been a Dev D earlier but Mukkabaaz is an out-and-out Bollywoodian love story. Did you deliberately plan it like that?
It wasn’t planned like that. I didn’t want to make just another sports movie. The stories it ( Mukkabaaz ) is based on are from various states, not just UP. Places where boxing is prominent. Then there are parallels — between wrestling, shooting, basketball. They face similar problems. The system has never really created a sportsman. They have always come out of the personal passion of an individual. I wanted to address that and, in the process, everything around us that was bothering me — casteism and nepotism... It’s [The film] not about any political party but society at large. .
So the two lovers are from real life?
No, the character of the boxer is from real life, based on a boxer who couldn’t play for India. He coaches underprivileged children.
And you don’t want to identify him?
No. He is someone who is now a coach. He coaches underprivileged children. The whole idea was to tell the story of a lot of coaches who never played. They are the ones who are really pushing people to become champions.
Is the love story incidental then?
The love story is part of the scenario. Yes, the girl being mute is incidental. I wanted to create a mute character. For me, Sunaina (the heroine) is a metaphor for women in UP. They hear everything but don’t speak up. They are not supposed to have a voice. They have their anger, they have a way of fighting. They don’t fight like men. I didn’t want the women in my film to fight back like men. They needed to fight back like women. It is one of the things I wanted to put across.
I wanted to put across a lot of things. In the last three or four years, every time you stand up to something or dissent, it is seen as anti-party. I have been fighting governments for a long time. I have never been accused of being anti-national, anti-India, anti-Congress, anti this or anti that. Why is it that today when you stand up and ask questions you are accused of being the supporter of some party or the other? There is constant accusation, constant pulling you down. Lots of people are angry. It is not democracy. The film stands up for all those things.
T he kind of forced censorship we have been dealing with... I deliberately made a film that wouldn’t go into those zones. I wanted to make a film that would come out. Like not allowing actors to improvise abuses, language. Consciously keeping the blood out, consciously keeping a lot of things out, having a fictional (political) party—all these elements.
Is it a ‘safe’ film then by your own standards?
No, it’s not a ‘safe’ film. Why am I making this film? Am I making it to accuse an individual or a party? No. I am making the film to hold a mirror to all that is going on in UP. We used to make social films, they had a context, they were socio-political films. They talked about things. We have stopped making them. Raju (Raj Kumar Hirani) makes them constantly. For me, the idea was to make a socio-political film built around sports. It’s not a film about boxing. Through the boxer I am telling the story of the whole world. That includes why people from lower strata of society get into sports. To change their lifestyle, to upgrade themselves, to get a government job. There is not just casteism but also reverse casteism. There are years of resentment. It’s both ways. It’s not just the Brahmin who is doing it. A lower caste man in a position of power is also doing it to a man below him. The politics of the State has become caste-based. It is no longer about people. I have used story-telling to say all that...
It’s refreshing to see that in an Anurag Kashyap film...
I have never made an effort to reach out. This time there’s a conscious effort to reach out. It will reflect in the films in future. As a filmmaker I have dealt with my anger, with my urge to be cinematic. Now I really want to reach out. The first audience for this film was my cook and my driver. They said, “Bhaiyya pehli baar aapki picture samajh mein aayi (it’s the first time we’ve understood your film).” I didn’t know whether to laugh, feel relieved or look back at everything I’ve done in the past.
But there is also the criticism that there are too many ideas jostling for space here… casteism, politics, nepotism…
That I can’t help. My film is never about a single idea.
So, in a nutshell, boxing prompted the story…
That is the starting point. Also the story of Narsingh Yadav, who was accused of doping. It is also the story of so many sportsmen who are on the sidelines. Their lives and careers are in the hands of somebody who is actually just a bureaucrat. Lots of things have triggered the film. But, when you make a film like this, you have to find a true story for the basis, which came up in research. Vineet (Singh, also the lead actor) and Mukti (Singh Srinet) had written a boxing film, which was almost like Rocky . I asked Vineet to show me a a Rocky in India. All we can talk about is Vijender Singh. So either give me a true story of his life. What I found interesting in the script was the one sequence of the guy trying to get a job. I was interested in the world but if I had to do a film I would need to do my own research. I couldn’t take it away from Vineet but I’d do the film only if he became a boxer. He said how? I said train, and he started training in Mumbai. I told him not to do filmi training but to become a hardcore boxer. There are no boxing choreographers, action directors in the film. He is fighting real boxers. He is fighting the Asian champion. The guy he fights in the end — Deepak Rajput — is an actual Southpaw from India. Neeraj Goyat — the guy he knocks out in the technical rounds — is the defending Asian champion. They were asked to get into the ring and box. I wanted him to become a boxer. I didn’t want to see the fake boxing I have seen enough. He went to Haryana and Punjab. I started talking to people. What emerged is that there might be one Vijender but countless not known in many cities. Vetrimaran called me from Chennai and said North Chennai is exactly the same story. Every sports has the same story. Since we had access to boxing, we made it about boxing. I sent Saqib (Pandor), my second unit director, to record boxing tournaments on camera. So the state tournament we show is the recreation of an actual tournament we have on camera: a boxing tournament happening under the tent because their own space is occupied by something else. These tournaments have no audience. It’s the other boxers who sit and watch them. You realise the pathetic state of sports and how it is not supported by the system in a big way. They give some funds because they are supposed to give funds. People who organise it run it like a personal fiefdom. We had hardcore, documented video evidence on which we based it. Let’s not make a fake sports film. Every time we make a film on boxing we make it look like Pro boxing. India has no Pro boxing.
It’s a rare sports film, which is not about the flag, nationalism and winning for India...
That ending with the national anthem? I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to show the real state of sports in India. I wanted to use the false nationalism that people are wearing, which is why the whole sarcasm in ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. Nationalism is being used and propagated to get away with anything and I wanted to bring that out, very consciously.
The typical Bollywood viewer immediately connects with the film.
It’s a classic love story from small towns. The boy and girl see each other and fall in love. They have not a single physical contact. The girl doesn’t even see him. She says marry me and then see me every single day. The dates are about going out and eating and hesitating. I have seen that work in cinema in the South. The approach to the love story was the way I have seen it in Tamil cinema. There is love, infatuation, attraction. They haven’t really explored each other before marriage.
There have been comparisons with Sairat ?
I don’t see it like Sairat but I don’t mind it being seen like that. Love story is the way to pitch it to the audience. They want the lovers to meet. In the process you can show a lot of things. I thought we had dealt with caste and it was all over. But it has resurfaced all over again. It is back in everyday conversation, in newspaper headlines. Even sports is about caste divides. Education is. You can’t escape caste politics, gender politics. You are conditioned by it. It is ingrained. The whole dynasty culture is ingrained in us. It is not about just the Gandhi family. It’s everywhere. Whose son or daughter you are has always mattered to normal, everyday persons also.
The cow vigilantism bit, I thought, could be tricky...
I don’t see it like that because it is very clear in the film. These are anti-social elements. It is not a film about cow vigilantism. For me nothing in the film is there out of an agenda, out of some kind of bias. It is an honest film. When you think through everything, you also know how to put forth your argument. I have enough reasoning to fight it to put it out there. The film is not talking about a single political party. If the agenda is cow protection for a party, a lot of anti-social elements are using it to serve their purpose. Most of the lynchings are happening to settle personal scores. The whole propaganda is that since you have done it in the name of the cow we will protect you.
It’s a criticism that came for Gulaal and for this film too. That you have a sense of politics, you are subversive, but you don’t delve deeper...
The only natural progression from where I leave it at is to offer a solution. I don’t want to. The idea is to tell people what it is. Let’s see what it does to people individually. Who am I to offer a solution? Am I in politics? No I am not. I may have my politics but I choose to be as apolitical as I can. There was a BRICS film being made. I was on the verge of shooting it when I was ordered to step down. Suddenly you are dealing with a government that is not secure enough. They are getting affected by your voice and acting vindictive. It’s an indirect signal to tell you to shut up. I’ve never dealt with a government like that. I didn’t see it coming. First one and a half years I was working very closely with them trying to change things. On censorship, we had a meeting here. I really believed this government will be supportive of the industry.
But the new Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Minister is the first one to have done things for the industry. That is a positive sign and a relief. All is not lost.
Will this engagement with politics and issues stay with you as a filmmaker?
Gulaal was about everything that Congress did wrong. As an artiste those are the things that bother me. I will vote for good governance. I don’t vote for a party. Constantly being singled out as a vested interest is something I disapprove of and will not accept it.
Tell us about the music
Rachita Arora was recommended by Makrand Deshpande. She was doing a play with him and was standing outside my parking lot. I heard her song and asked her who composed it. She said she herself had. I just took her to the office and signed her. I gave her Mushkil hai apna mel priye as a test. That song is a progression (in the film). The film is held together by two songs — this and Bahut hua samman . One for the love story, the other for the sports.
The song situation where you get Nawazuddin Siddiqui in… It was such a deliberate throwback to Dev D , brassband and Emotional Atyachar …
All my life I have used men as item numbers. I have always loved that.
The dialogue and lyrics merge well when it comes to the language…
North India is like a home ground. I know the language so well. It is so ingrained in me. Someone pointed out that dialogues from Shool , the Lallan dialogues in Yuva , Wasseypur , Gulaal and this; that I should keep making films in North India. Bahut hua samman is borrowed from a very popular parlance in the university, you will see a very abusive version of it there. Hussain Haidry came up with Aisi Ki taisi and it became something else. Mushkil hai apna mel priye is a very popular 2001 poem by Sunil Jogi. All we did was contemporise it.
So he has been involved in more than just acting…
All my actors are. Abhay (Deol) was involved in Dev D , Kalki (Koechlin) in (That Girl In) Yellow Boots , Zeishan Quadri was involved in Wasseypur , Raja Chaudhary was involved with Gulaal . They are fully in there. They give me that kind of time. Zoya Hussain gave me six months. The idea was you learn the sign language so you can improvise. She had to get to that level. I need that kind of time from my actors, as well as music directors. That’s why I work with newcomers. I don’t want to launch people, I just want them to give me all their time.
Rajesh Tailang is superb as the father of Vineet, and the father-son scenes work so well…
He is superb. That scene comes from within. It is something I have wanted to say for the longest. It’s my favourite line: “ Baap shunya to hum kahan se Aryabhatta ho jaayenge (If father is a zero, how can we become Aryabhatta).”
Why did you pick Vineet?
I felt he was ready to be upgraded. I have been working with him for long. Actors expose themselves too much. Vineet just disappeared. You saw him in Bombay Talkies or Ugly . No one saw him after that. He manages to surprise you. Seventeen years of struggle have given him a seething anger. He put everything into it. He broke his rib and shot half way through the film without telling me because he was afraid the shoot will stop. He broke his hand and I had to stop the shoot for two months.
People have criticised it for being too long and protracted…
That’s because there is no interval. I have designed the film for the interval. Raman Raghav was not supposed to have an interval. It depended on the mood which interval can take away.
There’s a good dose of humour… a male, young humour.
Without humour how do you tell the story? It’s a very UP humour. The sarcasm. We call it ‘ tanj maarna’ .
Have you ever encountered the kind of wolf whistles and applause you got at the Mukkabaaz premiere?
Never. And it began right at the start of the film. It is resonating with everyone. Everybody’s anger is with something or the other — the system, governance, teacher, father, boss. I didn’t realise it before the MAMI screening. I thought a lot of things were drowned out by the noise and the applause.