It is outside the ring where the real fight happens: A reading of Mukkabaaz

Azram Rahman Khan from Delhi University wrıtes on Mukkabaz, an Anurag Kashyap fılm. It is about how Caste, Gender and Disability at Intersectionality, emerging in the film and a critique about Islamphobia. He has written that this Padmavati uproar has dominated Mukkabaz, a film that must gain attention for many reasons.

For all the reasons right or wrong, the film Padmavat has been in the news for a very long time now. One reason was the allegation against it that it has distorted history. Although the film makes no claims that it depicts history as and how it happened, its representation of historical characters are definitely influenced by contingencies of the present. It is no wonder that Alauddin Khilji is represented as a diabolical man in times of raging Islamophobia. Padmavat, like any other piece of cinema thus make statements about the present social realities. One other film which has also made certain very strong statements about the present state of things and has attempted to unsettle the ‘normal’ is Mukkabbaz. This film in my opinion deserves more attention than it has hitherto got because the depiction here is much more honest and real.

The central plot of Mukkabaaz is boxing and a commentary about those sportsmen who despite having the talent are ultimately forced into failures. Apart from addressing this and many other questions about the administration of sports  what the film has really achieved is that it has made something visible which all the films so far have been ignorant about i.e. what social institutions determine our behaviour, what role does privilege play in our lives? And most importantly what role does caste play in it?

This is not the first film which has put caste at the centre stage of its narrative. Though very few in number, films in the past did depict caste realities but their treatment had been very limited and has mostly produced certain archetypes. Mostly it was to portray the dehumanizing conditions in which Dalits are condemned to live like Paar by Gautam Ghose or Sadgati by Satyajit Ray. The other form of representation was to show the spectacle of violence through the lens of caste like Bandit Queen, Damul, Mrityudand etc. Recently as has been argued by Harish Wankhede in The Wire, there has been a welcome development in Hindi cinema to present the Dalit subject beyond certain stereotypes as a dignified individual a case in point being Masaan and Newton. Mukaabaaz’s treatment of caste falls in this later development. It not only breaks away from the sterotype Dalit subject but also attmpts tp portray caste as it functions in the everydayness of life and also its various intersections.

This movie’s treatment of the question of caste is very layered and nuanced. It just does not stop at showing the antagonist as a powerful Brahmin who uses all kinds of networks and extra-legal ways to maintain his domination but also throws light on the other accomplices in the web. The victims of caste domination also do not follow a unilineal pattern but are much more intricate. As the obvious feudal lord, Bhagwan Das Mishra uses many tactics to dominate thus showing the various manifestations of caste in everyday lives. One of the ways that he does so is to humiliate others by asking them to drink his urine or practicing untouchability with the Dalit coach Sanjay Kumar, the character played by Ravi Kishan.

But the beauty of Mukkabaaz lies in depicting the myriad ways in which caste operates. For example, it portrays the subtlety of reverse casteism too. The boss of Shravan Singh in his office, who is Yadav by his surname videographs Singh while making him do the work of his peon. He does so to avenge the humiliation he and his family had received when his father used to work in a Bhumihar household. Shravan, who is Rajput by caste, is higher in the social order from the Yadavs. What sets this treatment different is that when Shravan, after bearing a lot of ill treatment confronts his senior with his ruffian attitude, the senior gets so scared that he is shown to have peed in his pants. He is then not shown anywhere in the film to avenge this behaviour using his networks, probably because unlike Mishra, he does not have any. Bhagwan das on the other hand, uses all what it takes to make Shravan’s life a living hell after he had refused to silently bear his domination. In fact Shravan, at the start of the film landed a punch at Bhanwan’s face earning his permanent wrath. Bhagwan does not even spare Ravi Kishan who had decided to coach Shravan later. Thus, signifying that his roots is deep inside the echelons of power and he as the agent of casteism does not let go even a slightest resistance against his domination. For Shravan’s Boss Yadav however, the ambit of influence is limited within the office itself. He is not capable of hunting anyone going out of his way.

For Bhagwan Das, caste pride and casteism is a way of life and as an active agent of it he has made sure that things around him function in such manner. For Shravan’s senior on the other hand, the casteism that he practices is in response to the discrimination that has been meted out to him and his family historically. There is a limit to how much he can oppress those who are now supposed to be socially inferior to him whereas for Bhagwan Das it knows no limits.

Mukkabaaz sheds light on the intricacies of caste and gender, as well quite commendably. It brings into focus, the notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ as well as the control exercised by a patriarch in the household. It explicitly shows how women are subjugated, controlled and ‘kept in check’ in dominant caste households and the larger systemic structuring of gender roles (and behaviours) in a patriarchal society. Bhagwan Das Mishra, a Brahman, a patriarch holds supreme authority over women of the household and perpetrates violence on any act of transgression. When Sunaina, Bhagwan Das Mishra’s niece, resists these diktats, she is physically assaulted by him and ‘shown her place’ immediately. On two different occasions, both Sunaina’s mother and Bhagwan Das Mishra’s wife talk to Sunaina and Shravan respectively, advising them to stay in their ‘limits’ and warning them otherwise, of dire consequences that they themselves have experienced in that household.

Despite the warnings, Sunaina and Shravan are unapologetic about falling in love, in defying caste endogamy. When Sunaina’s parents support her pursuit of marriage with Shravan, they face a social boycott from the family initially and several backlashes later leading to their kidnap, brutal physical violence and abuse. It also shows the everyday patriarchal struggles of various women and their submissions, subversions and rebellions against the same. The film carefully shows how across generations, the women from within the oppressive dominant caste households are strengthening their revolt against patriarchal control. Sunaina not only rebels against her uncle Bhagwan Das Mishra and his extreme oppressive control of her life, but also chides her partner Shravan against his casual misogyny. The dominant ideologies of caste, gender are intertwined with disability, and operate hand in hand, in social relations (surrounding Sunaina’s life) in both explicit and subtle ways. She is a disabled person. Her inability to speak makes her perceive as an ‘exchange’ in a marriage with another disabled person (for a business deal). The ways in which Sunaina’s father Gopal Das and Sravan’s coach Sanjay Kumar defy hegemonic masculinity, Sunaina and her mother rebel against the brahmanical and patriarchal structures, Sunaina’s mother-in-law ‘believe’ in the patriarchal organization of a domestic space etc. show that Mukkabaaz as a film explores different contours of social relations emerging at the intersections of gender, caste and disability.

This film also comments on the recent spate of violence in India on cattle traders and also on rumoured consumption of beef. In fact an incident shown in the movie of the lynching of Sanjay Kumar is similar to the Lynching of Akhlaq that took place in Dadri in 2015. What is interesting is that despite the fact that there are direct references to these incidents as they have happened in real life in recent times, the identity of those who are at the receiving end of such violence has been changed from Muslims to Dalits. The film in fact has not a single Muslim character given that it is placed in Bareilly, which has 38.8% of Muslim population according to the census data. This is what Ashutosh Varshney called the Muslim being rendered irrelevant in the context of UP election where BJP without fielding a single Muslim candidate managed to win comfortably. Here as well the Muslim subject is invisibilized even when referring to violence on Muslims.

This film therefore while touching upon intricate contours of caste and patriarchy; while it shows how any violence is justified while chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jay;’it shies away from looking at violence against Muslims and Islamophobia in the eye.

Azram Rahman Khan is a Research Student of History at University of Delhi

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