Film Review | Mary Kom
The champion’s amazing journey is broad-brushed, Manipur is a puzzle and Priyanka Chopra is impressively industrious
Not that boxer Mike Tyson should have been serious when he said last year he would like to take a whack at playing Othello, but without a tragic hero, or at least a hero without a tragic flaw, boxing is no different from a skilled street fight. The crux of every popular boxing story is a debilitating journey from adversity to redemption.
To translate that dramatic graph on screen, film-makers have usually used a combination of grit and sentiment to define their heroes—take the best, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) or Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight (2000). When JakeLaMotta (Robert De Niro in Raging Bull) or Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight) charge on to the ring, they are lit from within. Their tragic flaw makes them more spectacular than they probably are. With its proximity to gore and death, boxing is anyway the hardest and most thrilling spectator sport—there is enough cinematic fodder there.
Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom is the first big Hindi film on boxing after the 1965 Dara Singh-starrer Boxer directed by Radhakant, which was a successful film of its time according to some Hindi cinema history books, and Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan’s Lahore from 2010, a smaller and more intimate film.
Kumar takes the skeletal outline of the life of champion pugilist Mangte Chungneijang Merykom, better known as M.C. Mary Kom, and turns it into a broad-brushed crowd-pleaser. At one point, it will even instruct you to stand on your feet. Patriotism, angst of the marginalized—the wafer-thin screenplay has all the jingoism needed to rouse an audience in an Indian movie theatre.
A hopeful young fighter approaches an ageing, grizzled trainer, who declines to take on the newcomer. Eventually he does, and she becomes famous. The sport itself is rudimentary—we don’t know what Mary’s strengths and weaknesses in the ring are. Does she develop a style of her own? As long as she “attacks”, the coach is smug and satisfied.
Mary Kom’s story has inspired opinion pieces and literary journalism. Between her beginnings as a boxer in a Manipuri village and her sixth world championship title, is a long struggle against her family’s poverty, scant resources and India’s callous sports establishment. With the support of her husband K. Onler Kom, she has been a mother to three boys and has emerged as a brand from the North-East—a kind of wronged figure easy to associate with the region, one who has beaten all odds to be revered, feared and loved. The film’s writer, Saiwyn Qadras and director Kumar simply tow that brand. Through a series of conflicts—against her father, coach, a sports official, we see Mary triumphant, and all tears and hugs in that Bollywoodized triumph.
In the lead role, Priyanka Chopra throws herself into the part, supplying energy and heart. Her physical preparedness for the role is remarkable. Beyond the impossible calisthenics in the local gym or in the mountains of Manali, she manages to tap into the woman and the fighter despite the extremely superficial writing and sloppy editing. Her role is sentimental, its optimism and emotional import often at odds with the character’s ferocity in the ring and her desire to pummel other women. It is not impossible for these impulses to coexist of course, but it’s an irony that remains entirely unexplored in the film. We see her switching roles from mother to humble disciple to fierce opponent in the ring effortlessly, with the help of a few songs with familiar tunes and lyrics in the background.
Manipur is a puzzle, a jumble of cardboard insurgency images (bombs exploding on streets, brazen army men), a Manipuri folk dance thrown in to celebrate one of Mary’s medals, and a local tongue of atrocious Hindi and English. Yet Mary’s being from the Nort-East is shown (mostly through trite dialogues and Chopra’s histrionics) to be a hindrance in her rise to the top. Take the real Manipur out of Mary Kom, simplify her life to a script outline, and you have the Bollywood biopic. Talking of stereotypes, Mary’s most daunting opponent, a German, comes across as a fighter suited to a WWE contest.
The script does not even scratch the surface of the other characters. While Chopra blazes through, the laboured theatrics of the coach (Sunil Thapa) and the husband (Darshan Kumaar) make them look like actors in a school play. The Hindi they speak, which is intended to have the North-East twang, is pure farce—you will laugh even when you are not supposed to. The dialogues are banal. “This is the best goal I have ever scored!” an ecstatic Onler, a local football coach, tells Mary when he discovers she is pregnant.
Other such metaphors that pepper the dialogue may have been worse than this one, but my attention ran out. All I cared about till the end was how the woman was ducking, weaving, bouncing and punching, without knowing much about the sport’s nuances. So despite all the North-East claptrap and the thoughtless film-making, Priyanka Chopra makes Mary Kom worth watching.
Mary Kom released in theatres on Friday.
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