Sports biopics don’t go out of fashion, and often they are a regurgitation of the last one we saw—streamlined chronicles of triumph against odds. The protagonist or protagonists are up against a social system, and also, usually family. The small wins pile up until a momentous contest lifts them out of their circumstances. A rousing climax is the sport biopic’s métier.
Srijit Mukherji’s Shabaash Mithu, a biopic of the former captain of India’s women's cricket team Mithali Raj, doesn’t transcend or subvert that arc.
We meet Mithali (Inayat Verma) as an adorable little girl learning Bharatnatyam somewhere in her hometown Secunderabad. Her brother, who has aspirations of playing for the Indian cricket team, rudely shoos her away from cricket grounds. But with the help of her spunky and equally endearing friend Noorie (Kasturi Jagnam), the two girls break in.
Noorie is not only a foil to Mithali in demeanour—her street credo kind of courage gets her in trouble, especially with the boys, often—but also in the way Noorie has to fight patriarchy to be able to play a boy’s sport.
The local coach Sampath (Vijay Raaz) shares tea with Mithali’s parents in the family’s living room, announcing his decision to choose Mithali over her brother to coach for a spot in his camp with the express goal of getting her into the national squad one day. He wouldn’t do the same with Noorie’s family. Noorie lies to her family and accompanies Mithali and her father to cricket grounds. Mithali can use mind-body balancing tips from her Bharatnatyam teacher on the cricket field; Noorie resents that just because she is a girl she has to learn a dance form, which, according to her bullying mother, is a way to get Noorie in touch with her femininity.
Noorie is like Mithali’s turbine and transformer. Together, the two girls form a world that thrives on making Mithali’s dream come true. It is like a love story that’s fragile and untenable—but one that, the film’s writer Priya Aven suggests, is Mithali’s only real inspiration and propeller.
The first 20 minutes of the film’s two hours-and-40-minutes of running time, which is about Mithali’s childhood and introduction to cricket, is promising in a quietly provocative way. The next two hours and 20 minutes, which takes off after Mithali (Taapsee Pannu) gets selected in the national team, is the usual up-by-the-bootstraps pursuit of Mithali’s rise to the spot of the Indian captain, then leading up to the 2017 World Cup when she led the Indian team up to the finals at Lords against England. Her struggle is no longer against family or society—after her friendship with Noorie is brutally cut off by Noorie’s marriage to a man of her family’s choice, all there is in the film about Mithali’s personal struggles is getting her wounded brother on her side.
Off-pitch, her fight is first against the women who are entrenched in the gloom-and-doom narrative that permeates women’s cricket—her team members, a motley group of fierce funny and testy women from different parts of India and with different stories of adversity and survival behind them. A former mentee of Mithali’s former coach Sampath, who remains the voice in Mithali’s head even as she scales international success, is the captain she has to work with when she enters the national team. Later, Mithali takes on the Cricket Association of India, who is prejudiced and obdurate enough to accept that the women’s cricket team deserves at least with the basics of a touring sports team’s paraphernalia.
Technically, Shabaash Mithu is a highly competent film—with big names like Sreekar Prasad as editor and Amit Trivedi as music director to a patchy music score with some clamorous numbers and a couple of striking solos, all playing in the background.
Mukherji and Aven are too preoccupied with the story’s rousing trajectory. Their overwhelming concern in how to achieve this: The girls want to play cricket for the love of the sport. The circumstances around which they play are not at all favourable to them. But they beat the odds, rise, go places, and finally get recognised at home; in the climactic moments, even a call from the prime minister is thrown in as a special doff to the ‘national spirit’. The ‘national spirit’ underlines the film’s crucial moments like most sports films do.
Few great sports films have subverted this easy and simplistic arc to invest as much in the inner life and personal journey of a protagonist and the characters around her as in her momentum towards sporting glory; notable among them in recent times is King Richard, in which the turbulent as well as gifted childhood and teenage years of Serena and Venus Williams, the truculent spirit of their father and racial tensions in suburban neighbourhoods of 1980s’ Los Angeles mesh seamlessly.
The way Shabaash Mithu is set up, a story of finding oneself through sports and a special friendship between two girls, it is a missed opportunity. By the end of the film, despite even, realistic performances from all actors and Pannu’s confidently immersive embodiment of Mithali at the centre of the narrative, it feels like a checklist of challenges overcome and decisions vindicated. Pannu’s choice of roles demands her to be at her athletic prime. Here she is that, and being the fine actor that she is, still evolving to be her best. Pannu manages to invest us in not only Mithali’s career but also her growing independence and self-awareness, keeping us interested in what happens next despite the screenplay’s formulaic route.Still, Mithali Raj isn’t an individual enough in this biopic—some of the other women in her team played by actors Mumtaz Sorcar, Shilpi Marwaha and Sampa Mandal, among others, the irony which they embody, of being tenacious women and yet un-belonging to society or cricket aristocracy, made more of a dent in the mind. All those minutes of Mithali bulldozing herself to never-say-die feel and look awfully familiar during most of the film’s running time. At best, Shabaash Mithu is a conscious, well-argued punch at the privilege and smugness inherent in the Indian men’s cricket establishment.