In many ways, Shabaash Mithu is the film you expect. Another loud, understated sports biopic that serves to underline its heavy-handed message. But somewhere in his shrill mainstream grammar is also a quieter, more intimate human drama.
Starring Taapsee Pannu (I think she’s now contractually bound to lead any film even loosely related to sports), the story tells the story of recently retired Indian cricket captain Mithali Raj. Her 23-year career is full of accolades and achievements, including breaking the world record for the highest individual Test at the age of 19 and becoming the first Indian captain to lead the country to two World Cup finals. Shabaash Mithu tells her story and uses her journey to highlight the hardships and uphill battle that is women’s cricket in India.
The first and probably the most memorable part of the film introduces us to young Mithali Raj (Inayat Verma) and the friendship she forms with her firecracker of a friend Noori (a wonderfully commanding Kasturi Jagnam). Noori introduces her to cricket, recognizes her talent and allows her to become MC Sher to her Murad. The two begin playing the game secretly (because of course girls aren’t allowed to play with boys) until they are discovered by the local cricket coach Sampath Sir (Vijay Raaz always understands the assignment, here he brings his hard-earned token of wisdom).
The loud tone of Srijit Mukherji’s film is heard from the very first moments. Srijit makes films that scream at you (Begum Jaan). Every emotional punch is listed, rephrased and underlined. But during these early parts of the narrative, the sentiment shines through the screams. I liked that Priya Aven’s script keeps cricket on the backburner and instead focuses heavily on the touching friendship between the two girls.
But of course, before long we get a time jump. Seven years have passed and Mithali has now grown into Taapsee Pannu. (For most of this film, Taapsee is supposed to be a 16-year-old who you don’t buy into for a second. But it works if you forget that detail). Mithali is selected for the national camp, but her celebration is short-lived as she realizes that it is not all that she had hoped for. First, she is not exactly welcomed by her teammates, who see her as young and inexperienced. She is also learning the hard way that finally making it to the big leagues of women’s cricket is not the culmination of the struggle, but only the beginning. The beginning of a lifelong battle to be seen, acknowledged and taken seriously.
It is here that Shabaash Mithu is most powerful and essential. Where she rises above her gritty, stodgy packaging and gives us hints of a more intimate drama about a young girl coming into her own and navigating the struggle to find her voice among her new cast mates. (The magic of Mukesh Chhabra’s casting gives us a team peppered with great performances, namely Sampa Mandal as Neelu, who steals the scenes). Here the film can breathe and be for a while before being weighed down by the pressures of her legacy and obsessed with rushing to the next success. It’s the silence in this section of the narrative that caught my eye, where Mithali is given the freedom to be bland and human before becoming a leader forced to confront sexist men in boardrooms. Likewise, this is where Taapsee shines brightest. Where she feels comfortable trying to fit in instead of needing to stand out as she goes through Mithali’s silent struggle.
But the silence doesn’t last as we jump into the overlong second half, which quickly devolves into the clunky, lackluster lead role of Mithali’s achievements that we’ve come to expect from sports biopics. An honest origin story gives way to a contrived success story. The concentrated inner drowns in the flamboyant, diluted outer. After a dramatic confrontation with a group of blatantly sexist cricket officials (led by none other than Brijenda Kala, in a poignant scene and one of the few to be awarded silence, without a strong backstory), Mithali temporarily quits the team. (I couldn’t tell if she was fired or fired).
From now on, Shabaash Mithu has nothing more to say. I found myself trying to find my way back into the movie. Even worse is the climactic World Cup montage, which ranks among the laziest and most unimaginative closing sequences of any sports film in recent memory. A blurry, bloated, looping reel made up of footage of actual matches with actors entered by CGI. After a while it becomes a hypnotic looping rhythm: TV footage – goal taken – reaction filmed by one of the actors. Rinse and repeat. I couldn’t even tell how much time had passed.
Not to mention all the inevitable cringe-inducing scenes along the way – a journalist asks Mithali who her favorite male cricketer is at a press conference, an uncle at a sports bar asks the bartender to change the channel because who wants to watch Indian cricket, and so on. Why do sports dramas feel the need to invent villains, especially here where there are no shortage of obstacles in the way of female cricketers? In this case, it is Mithali’s former teammate-turned-coach Sukumari who is determined to sabotage Mithali’s career through the film. Shabaash Mithu is also said to be set in a span of 20 years, but you barely feel the passage of time with the impressively lazy work of an aging Taapsee and the wider cast. Especially her mother (Devadarshini) remains the same.
But for all its harshness, it’s a film that gave me a sense of journey. During the final moments of Shabaas Mithu, we see Mithali and her team mobbed by a horde of young girls begging for their autographs to Amit Trivedi’s mellow Hindustan Meri Jaan hymns. It’s manipulative and conventional, but I was overcome by every moment of it. Athletes and successful people finally recognized. Finally seen.