Mithali Raj Needs to Be Celebrated More
Shabaash Mithu, carries a message, underplayed, subtle and powerful, but the filmmaking could have been better.
Bollywood cinema has recently shown an inclination towards films dealing with sports and with sportsmen. They are presented as documentary, fiction, and docu-fiction films. The fictional films are free to play around with the language of cinema, adding songs, drama, romance and so on. And if handled with proper planning and good production values and are likely to hit the jackpot. The best example is Amir Khan's magnum opus Lagaan.
Fictional films based on the lives of real sports persons might not have had similar commercial success, with exceptions like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag starring Farhan Khan in the title role. Even Mary Kom, starring Priyanka Chopra in her most outstanding performance, did not fetch her the National Award. A real-life sports movie that fell a cropper at the box office was 1983, though it was a well-made film.
Commercial risks are unpredictable for films on sports and sportspersons, it took courage and passion for Srijit Mukherjee to make a Hindi film on the struggles and rise of Mithali Raj, the captain of the Indian Women's Cricket Team. Raj, despite her illustrious record both as an individual player, as well as the cricket captain, announced her retirement from all kinds of cricket on behalf of India. The film does not reach this conclusion.
For some mysterious reason, the actual struggle with the game in action that Raj went through becomes secondary to her childhood bonding with Noorie, which offers the best sub-plot to the entire film. Just cover drives and sixes and fours and hits and over-the -boundary strikes which the frames are spilling over are not enough. They appear like short-cuts in a long film.
This too, is dampened by the less-than-committed performance by Taapsee Pannu in the title role. She does not quite seem to have internalised the spirit of a winning cricketer. The character demanded an electrically charged performance, both in physical and facial expression, of lightning change in moods and emotions which are sadly missing. This is a bit surprising because Pannu is a wonderful performer in most of her films, though often marginalised by the script such as in Naam Shabana.
Her colleagues in the team coming from very stressful backgrounds offer more interesting nuggets and counterpoints to Mithali Raj's fortunate and supportive family. They carry these along and yet get into the spirit of the game, and what winning it demands.
Sampa Mandal as Neelu, and Mumtaz Sorcar as another player who shun Raj to begin with but gradually warm up to her winning streak are very good and pep up the proceedings.
The two best features of Shabaash Mithu lie in the childhood bond between little Mithu and her friend, the slightly older Noorie, played brilliantly by Inayat Varma and Kasturi Jagnam respectively. This casting is perfect and so is their training if there was one. Their pretty and naïve images keep haunting the grown-up Mithali time and again.
The other is the gentle, yet professional bond between Mithali Raj and her coach and mentor Sampath Kumar (Vijay Raaz). His sudden death in an accident crushes her almost completely. But she picks herself up through her memories with him and his small, philosophical bytes. "The huge field is like Life itself. Once you enter it, everything else, (struggles, sorrows, et al) become small."
Raj carries this through her cricketing days. Her true grit comes across when she is shocked at the grand treatment meted out to the men's team at the airport compared to her own. Later, she is amused when a fan of a male cricketer, not recognising her, asks her to take a photo with her hero. In the end, when the young women players return with the second prize at the World Cup, the crowd at the airport gives them a real winner's welcome.
Mithali's reunion with Noorie many years later adds a much-needed fillip to the rather repetitive narrative. It is also enriched by the fresh and bubbly performance by the actor playing the married Noorie. Watching the world cup on her television and trying to explain it to her little baby is a sweet touch.
The music and songs are good, but there are too many songs which do not always help the narrative. Top angle shots of rows of buildings and houses used as a short-cut editing device do not add to the seamless movement of the film. What pulls the story down is its 156-minute running time. It is not justified either by the story or by its telling.
What makes things worse is the slipshod editing and bad camera-work of the World Cup game scenes. Another negative point is Mithali Raj's brother's reaction to her success. Holding his failure to make it to her kid sister's success is a bit overdone. One wonders how her real-life brother would have reacted to this.
We do not see Mithali Raj growing in years as a cricketer with a 23-year career span. She appears, in terms of build and age, to remain 16 years old throughout the film. Mithali Raj is dusky but Taapsi is light skinned, and other than giving her minimum make-up, there has been no attempt to strip her of her 'peaches and cream' complexion. The artificial 'buck teeth' are the only concession made to resemble the real-life Mithali Raj.
The technicalities of cricket throw up Mukherjee's passion for the game but might go over the heads of viewers like yours truly who know a bit of cinema but almost zero cricket. Yet, Mukherjee needs to be commended for succeeding in making the film carry the message of grit and determination which can take a young girl from an ordinary, middle-class family who dreamt of becoming a Bharat Natyam dancer but switched over, by a strange twist of fate, to cricket.
The destination is worth it. It carries a message, underplayed, subtle and powerful. But the journey could have been better.