From an auteurist point of view Mukkabaaz represents one of Anurag Kashyap's biggest compromises to the mainstream Bollywood formula. Far from the audacious ideas of No Smoking and Dev.D and even the sprawling excess of the overrated Gangs of Wasseypur, this film sits so firmly in the masala entertainer mold his Dabangg brother Abhinav may well feel threatened for his livelihood (or whatever remains of it after the loud and offensively stinky fart called Besharam). But you know what, that's not necessarily a bad thing, because while AK here chooses to work within the limitations of the 'safe' formula, he gives it a welcome texture and relatable context that has been missing from traditional big-budget Hindi cinema, which usually takes place in an isolated fantasy land where none of the real-world issues we see occur.
The story of the underdog boxer / sportsman making his way to the top (and sometimes falling off it) is an old one in movie history, but 1976's Rocky landed the big punch in Bollywood, which briefly added pugilism to its existing potboiler template to churn out Main Intaquam Loonga (1982) and Boxer (1983). Boxing made another entry in 2014's rah-rah biopic of Mary Kom. While Kashyap's movie features boxing, a good deal of it, it is not a sports film or a biopic. Mukkabaaz's outline fits the typical Hero-Heroine-Villain-Supporting Cast framework of Hindi 'Phillum': Shravan Kumar (even the names of the characters are almost deliberately bog standard) is in love with Sunaina but falls foul of her autocratic uncle Bhagwan Das who goes on to lay obstacles galore and make life hell for the young couple and everyone around. Romance, Action, Dialogue-baazi, Music, The Works. Boxing is simply the medium by which the heroic underdog rises against his oppressors, whether literally in the film's several punch-up sequences in and out of the ring, or in terms of the prestige the sport gives him.
But Shravan Kumar is not just an upstart boxer hero, he's a Rajput with the audacity to desire a higher-in-the-hierarchy Brahmin girl. Uncle Bhagwan Das is a casteist Hindutva torchbearer that gets his goons to conduct "beef lynchings". Sunaina is a mute, but that doesn't make her silent - she is educated and feisty, and wants to make her 'bindaas' way in the world. She has no feeling of cringing gratitude for the man who "accepted" her. And Kashyap's film is not just about boy bagging girl. We also see Shravan struggling between the demands of job and sporting career. In the "railway job" he bags through sports quota he is made a dogsbody by his sarkari babu superior (a coach even laments that most youth that take up sport only do it for the quota). Early on in the film a boxing tournament is conducted on a makeshift stage because the sports venue has been usurped for some minister's family wedding. Even the climactic national championships are staged in a realistically modest stadium, with few audience members apart from the fighters and the coterie that arbitrarily decides their futures.
It also helps that while there is simplification, there is no condescension towards the film's mainstream sensibilities. The actors are sincere, with Vineet Kumar Singh utterly believable on-screen as the titular boxer and terrific chemistry from Zoya Hussain as the girl that drives him to win her. Other characters are solid if stock (I regret an actor of Jimmy Shergill's caliber reduced to playing a single-note blackguard like Bhagwan Das but he is game, while Ravi Kishan provides able support as the dignified Harijan coach who trains Shravan Kumar to go up against his opponents). The film is shot with an emphasis on naturalistic atmosphere; special mention goes to the boxing ring bouts which carry a ring of authenticity, and even the standard lone-hero-against-horde-of-henchmen battles eschew the cliches of slow-motion or wire-work.
I do hope that Kashyap's commercial picture gets at least a fair proportion of the box-office success that mainstream Bollywood movies get, so that a) more people in the mainstream industry are inspired to inject social observation into the fabric of their scripts without the need for specific message movies b) he gets the financial freedom to come up with more 'out-there' ideas for his subsequent projects.