Hitting Patriarchy for a Six
A film that follows the rise of Mithali Raj exposes the inherent sexism in women’s cricket
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Mumtaz Sorcar, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, Devadarshini, Inayat Verma, Kasturi Jagnam, Sampa Mandal
Direction: Srijit Mukherji
When Paulo Coelho and Shah Rukh Khan promised “Ki agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaho toh the whole universe conspires to help you achieve it,” who knew that both of them were speaking of a universe that is of, by and for men.
Mithu, short for Mithali Dorai Raj, did. And the eponymous biopic of the highest run-scorer in women’s ODIs tells the story of how, when women aspire for something, the same universe drops everything and conspires to create an elaborate hurdles course for them.
Shabaash Mithu, written by Priya Aven and directed by Srijit Mukherji, showcases all those hurdles but also takes them in its stride, just like the women cricketers did – jumping over most, ducking under some, but also getting bogged down by a few.
Like all inspiring stories of sporting legends, Shabaash Mithu has a touch of fantasy. It has emotional moments of soaring determination and debilitating odds that ignite passion in a filmy way, a la Lagaan, but not once does it drop the ball and let us forget that it’s telling us a story of real women who compelled a tone-deaf universe to take note of them after it heard the applause they got – when they beat Pakistan in Derby, England, and when they lost the World Cup in 2017 by just nine runs.
Shabaash Mithu opens in Hyderabad, beginning at the beginning.
After a montage of boys playing gully cricket in maidans, parks, by a river, in a slum, we see two pairs of spindly, kiddie legs in peeing posture. One susu stream has a trajectory and falls at a distance, the other trickles down a leg. But when the boy chides the girl about it, little Noori (Kasturi Jagnam) beats the crap out of him.
It’s 1990 and Ammi is fed up of cricket-crazy, reed-thin Noori’s boyish behaviour. So she takes her to do some girly things – e.g. Bharatnatyam classes. At the dance school Noori meets the quieter, softer, lithe Mithu (Inayat Verma).
Mithu is the class’ best dancer, but instead of Noori learning ‘tat-tai, ta-ta-tai,’ she finds a secluded ground to play cricket in. Mithu, in her small dress with puff sleeves and long braids, wields the kapde-dhone-wala bat with style, while Noori, in a pavada and blouse, bowls.
“Main Sachin, woh Kambli,” Mithu tells coach Sampat (Vijay Raaz) when he stumbles upon their little secret. He takes them on and the usual follows – tough training sessions, tension before national selection, traumatic moments at the cricket academy, ego clashes, politics, matches, legendary wins and devastating losses.
All these bits are mounted in the film in a competent but not thrilling way. Where Shabaash Mithu scores is in its steadfast but light-footed focus on the challenges that women who dare to chart their own course face throughout their lives, cradle to crease.
As a child, in her house, Mithu’s less talented brother was pampered and his cricketing aspirations became the family’s collective goal. More money, time, ghee, milk and emotions were invested in him.
As a grown-up, Mithu (Tappsee Pannu) faces a similarly sexist panel at the cricket board. They treat Mithu and other women cricketers as a waste of time and money.
As a kid, Mithu challenged patriarchy with a pair of scissors, and as the captain of the Indian team she throws shirts at the cricket board.
Shabaash Mithu is sensitive to the fact that though all women face similar challenges and humiliations, some are more privileged than others because of class and caste. There is no cozy sisterhood at the academy.
In a lovely montage we see the world these women come from, and why they simmer at Mithu’s English and her milder ways.
Each woman has a distinct personality and story. They are aggressive, mean, focused, but also joyous, and can be bowled over by performance on the field.
Tappsee Pannu is very well cast and she is excellent. She has convincing cricketing prowess on the field, there’s dignity in her struggles and she brings Mithali Raj to life with impressive humility and honesty.
Her world at home and on the cricket field, in childhood and later in life, is populated by excellent actresses, especially Mumtaz Sorcar, Devadarshini (who plays Mithu’s mother), Inayat Verma, Kasturi Jagnam, Sampa Mandal, and one actor, Vijay Raaz.
Vijay Raaz has a powerful connection with the audience. He plays many characters who often don’t stay for very long in a film, yet every time he appears on screen for the first time in any movie, faces light up and there’s an audible, welcoming acknowledgement. Like item numbers, he adds oomph to films in a way that is unique to him. The only other character actor in Bollywood who is greeted with similar joy is Pankaj Tripathi.
Shabaash Mithu is a patronizing title for a feminist film. The film’s main plot is neither exciting nor new, yet the film is moving and entertaining because of how it tells the story of Mithali Raj and the Indian squad’s journey to the World Cup. And for that the credit goes to the film’s actors, of course, but more to writer Priya Aven, director Srijit Mukherji, and editor Sirsha Ray.
The film is full of sharp, small scenes that make the journey of these women, from struggle to victory, endearing, believable and powerful. It’s infused with tiny vignettes of life – at home and in the world of cricket – where men rule, where gender tries to decide women’s destinies, and it’s how these women negotiate these that gives Shabaash Mithu some serious feminist cred and moral muscle.
Shabaash Mithu’s screenplay has a steely, self-assured core that bristles whenever women are put down or their aspirations and talents are ignored. But it’s not all serious. It often laughs its head off when talentless men try to dictate what their cricketer wives must focus on after their wedding.
I liked Shabaash Mithu for many reasons, including how the film uses burqa, a Muslim family and talk of tannery to poke at many stereotypes, and how it seamlessly makes women flit between what’s considered feminine and what’s seen as masculine. Just as Shabaash Mithu normalizes girls peeing while standing, it shows spin bowlers, left-handed batswomen in sarees, in their bridal refinery and then cuts to them in their blue India jerseys, on the field, bowling, batting, swearing and fighting.