Monday, April 23, 2018

Right hook: two films about love and boxing

[Starting this weekend, I’m doing a monthly column for The Hindu about cinematic “moments” — a scene, a gesture, a glance or a line of dialogue. This first piece is about two excellent recent boxing films]

In a lovely little scene in the 2016 Finnish film The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki – directed by Juho Kuosmanen and based on actual events from 1962 – the eponymous boxer protagonist Olli Mäki worries that he might let his girlfriend down by losing a big championship match. “How can I be disappointed,” she replies, smiling, “when I haven’t asked anything of you?”

This tender moment contrasts strongly with the expectations bearing down on Olli everywhere else he goes. “It’s nice that you’re modest,” the match sponsors say when he plays down his own chances, “but we want a world champion.” The words are spoken in a bantering tone, but they must feel ominous coming from businessmen in sharp suits, spending big money on trying to get Finland an international celebrity.

We think of sports films as being about triumph in the arena or stadium. Even when a film’s tone is mainly subdued rather than dramatic, one expects it to build toward a climax that – temporarily, at least – makes the hard work, sacrifices and self-doubt seem worthwhile. Given this, it’s strange to reflect on the arc of the two best “boxing movies” I have seen recently.

The other one is Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, in the last scene of which the protagonist Shravan lets his opponent knock him out. Then, still flat on the floor, he turns and looks towards his wife Sunaina – and at the camera – and grins the broadest grin we have seen from him, as the music hits a crescendo. It’s the sort of exhilarating scene that, in most sports films, would have been reserved for the final moment of glory. But over the course of this narrative, Shravan has proved himself in other arenas and has now been reunited with the woman he loves, whom he calls his “aatma”.

When you first watch these two films, the differences between them are much more obvious. Mukkabaaz is a kinetic, wide-ranging work about many types of discrimination (rooted in caste, class, gender, even physical disability), how they intersect, and how sport can be a way of productively channeling aggression and frustration. It uses songs such as “Paintra” and “Bahut hua Sammaan Tumhara” as battle-cries directed by the unprivileged towards their oppressors. And it manages to simultaneously be a big-picture narrative and an intimate, detail-heavy one: the mute Sunaina works both as a symbol – of Shravan’s soul, silenced by circumstances but alive with spirit and defiance – and a credible person in her own right, the sort of strong, inspirational heroine that much of our indie cinema is now giving us.

Olie Mäki, on the other hand, is quieter, more reserved, and feels more languid – and not just because it is shot in dreamy black-and-white (an artistic decision that makes it feel like the film was made in the year it is set in, not half a century later). Shravan and Olli are very different people in different cultures and personal circumstances, and this is reflected in the tones of the films.

Any two stories about boxing will, of course, have a few similar scenes or character types. For instance, in both these films, the hero is trained by a street-smart coach who must have his wits about him as he strikes deals and negotiates the politics of his world. Both have scenes where a boxer is peremptorily told to take off his shorts, in a very public setting, while being weighed – giving us a sense of how sportsmen are sometimes treated more as pawns than human beings.

But the key similarity is a final act that undercuts conventional ideas about success and failure. The very title of the Finnish film is ironic but well-earned: in 1962, Olli went on to lose his big match in anticlimactic fashion – lasting just two rounds against the American Davey Moore – but described it subsequently as his “happiest day”. He was deeply in love and on his way to getting married; losing this match (and yet not disappointing the person who mattered most) must have been liberating.

Shravan probably feels freed too at the end of Mukkabaaz (possible subtitle: “Shravan ki zindagi ka sabse khush din”?). The journey was more important than the destination; he has nothing left to prove (as a pugilist, that is) and has learnt that there can be many types of passions and goals, not just the one you fixate on early in life.

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