Ideally, a biopic that aims to take up a larger issue using its protagonist as its key vehicle, should be informative, entertaining, and inspiring. But Shabaash Mithu is none of these.
Movies like Shabaash Mithu do more harm than good to the cause they stand for. In this case, it’s to shed light on the ignominy and gross neglect that Indian women cricketers have had to face at the hands of a misogynistic and insensitive cricket board, the government, media, and people, through the exemplary life of former Indian captain Mithali Dorai Raj.
Ideally, a biopic that aims to take up a larger issue using its protagonist as its key vehicle, should be informative, entertaining, and inspiring. But Shabaash Mithu is none of these. Add to it weirdly constructed scenes, a story that has no sense of time and tells you little about the woman it intends to celebrate, poor direction, and atrocious background score, and you have the recipe of how not to make a sports film. Or, to put it plainly: how not to reduce a life as remarkable and momentous as Raj’s to cinematic rubble.
For Raj was a breakthrough in Indian women’s cricket. She, along with stalwarts like Jhulan Goswami, catapulted it from obscurity to domestic and international fame, thanks to her consistent and enduring performance, calm captaincy, and the will to excel. Fathom these statistics: Raj is the only cricketer to make over 7,000 runs in women’s ODIs and is the first to hit seven consecutive half-centuries in this format. She is also the first Indian cricketer—male or female—with 2,000 runs in T20Is. To top it all, she is the only female captain under whose leadership India has played two world cup finals—in 2005 and 2017.
So much meat, such sweat, but director Srijit Mukherji and writer Priya Aven choose to turn it into a film that’s bland, inconsistent and feels far too long. A player as inimitable and seminal as Raj deserved better. So did we.
Taapsee Pannu, Hindi cinema’s newest staple for sports films, plays Raj. Throughout the film, she is either confused or sad, mirroring my emotions and of the precious few who came to watch Sabaash Mithu hoping to know more about Raj, her life, circumstances, and struggles both on and off the field, but left just as ignorant.
The two actors to watch out for in the film are the charming little Inayat Verma, who plays the eight-year-old Mithu, and the always dependable Vijay Raaz, who plays Raj’s coach Sampath Kumar.
More than a biopic, Shabaash Mithu feels like a drab lesson on gender equality. There’s a constant comparison between the men and women in blue; one’s dire circumstances are continually juxtaposed against the glorious world of the other. The comparison is justified, but it could have been more refined, less crass. That’s not too much of an ask, is it?
Moreover, in trying to show the jealousy and unwillingness of her other teammates in accepting a young, gifted, and privileged Mithu, Mukherji and Aven reduce them to uncouth hooligans. There is no room for nuance or subtlety in this film. Every point, each emotion is hammered down, much like the nail that Mithu’s coach pins her foot with to get her legwork right.
Then there’s the confusing timeline of Mithu’s career. She looks the same at 16 when she makes her international debut as she does in her 30s. Only her facial complexion changes. Also, the film gives out so little about her journey as a professional cricketer, that the 2017 World Cup feels like her first real tournament. I want to call Shabaash Mithu a highlight reel of Raj’s career. But it does not do even that properly.
Amit Trivedi’s generic, soulless music deserves a special mention. It is so acutely not in sync with what is going on screen, that it’s jarring. The songs feel like a relentless onslaught on the senses, giving the film and the audience no time to breathe. I never thought I’d write this of Trivedi’s music ever. But if you thought his work in Pannu’s Rashmi Rocket, which released last year, was bad, his compositions for Shabaash Mithu are several times worse. The Trivedi of Manmarziyaan—another Pannu film that had a subliminal music album—feels like the work of another man in another time.
I could go on about how certain scenes fell flat and how certain others were problematic, how the film should have focused more on Raj the cricketer than showing her as a victim and then a survivor, but it would be a pointless exercise. Even Chak De! India was about a women’s sports team fighting against systemic and social oppression. But its women didn’t pity themselves. They had a rousing, inspiring confidence that the women of Shabaash Mithu severely lack. Shabaash Mithu is so obsessed with Raj’s gender that it relegates her sport to the periphery. And in doing so, it loses the plot.
Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here