Synopsis – A biopic based on the life and struggles of Mithali Raj, Indian Cricketer, and captain of the Indian National Cricket team.
My Take – Yet another week, yet another Bollywood sealed sports biopic, once again starring Taapsee Pannu, now in her third sports based film following Soorma (2018), Saand Ki Aankh (2019) and Rashmi Rocket (2021).
Leaving the only interesting fact to reel anyone in is that the film chronicles the life of Mithali Raj, one of the greatest female cricketers ever, who not only carved out a shining, inspirational career for herself and fought for her right to be noticed in a gentleman’s game, but was responsible for the incredible rise of Indian Women’s cricket in the last two decades.
A biopic on the former Indian cricket captain’s life, was meant to give us an opportunity to fill us in on the details of how a young girl from Hyderabad went on to become the only female cricketer to surpass the 7,000 run mark over 232 ODIs and played 89 T20I matches, and six World Cups. A stuff of legends. Hence it is quite disappointing to see how director Srijit Mukherji and writer Priya Aven allocate her story to being a typical formulaic sports drama.
With its template-filled with every other known cliché that lives in service of underlining its heavy-handed underdog message. While the meditative biopic begins on a promising note and scores high in those quieter, more intimate human moments, it is struggles to maintain interest for 156 minutes in Mithali’s life and career. We continuously expect the screenplay to take some compelling turns, but unfortunately they never come. Turning this into yet another sports biopic which will fly under the radar and possibly only remembered for Taapsee Pannu‘s performance.
Beginning in 1990, the story follows a young Mithali Raj (Inayat Verma) who ends up striking a friendship with the trouble making Noori (Kasturi Jagnam) at Bharatnatyam dance classes, who end up bonding strongly for their love of the game of cricket. With her family always assuming that her older brother was a more natural fit to play professionally, Mithali and Noori play and learn secretly, that is until they get noticed by Sampath (Vijay Raaz), a former cricketer and local cricket coach, who upon seeing their natural talent enroll them into his academy.
However, her life takes a drastic turn when a few years later Noorie (Anushree Kushwaha) ends up getting prematurely married and sent to live in Dubai, thus leaving behind the sport she loved the most to become a home maker, a move which first breaks then strengthens the now grown up Mithali (Taapsee Pannu) with a determination to continue pursuing their dream. A resolve which gets her selected for the national camp, but her celebrations are short-lived as she realizes it’s not all she hoped it would be.
For one, she’s not exactly welcomed by her fellow players who see her as young and inexperienced. Second, all adulation and adoration are reserved for male cricketers only. Thus beginning her lifelong battle to be seen, acknowledged and taken seriously as makes it to the big leagues of women’s cricket.
The film begins on a promising note as we get acquainted with a young and shy Mithali and the fierce Noorie who take it upon themselves to learn cricket on their own. The sisterhood between the two young girls sets the tone of the film as it goes deep into how exactly she found love for the game, and the journey from there on. It’s here where the film is at its most potent and substantial.
It rises above its harsh, heavy-handed packaging and gives us traces of a more intimate drama about a young girl coming into her own and navigating the struggles of finding her own voice. An emotional underdog story, minus the jingoistic tropes and chest-thumping moments. But what starts of as a personal battle, eventually ends up being a fight for the team, to be noticed in a country that worships the male cricketers.
The dramatic portion is where the core conflict of the film lies, and director Srijit Mukherji and writer Priya Aven manage to make a statement without overtly going on the face of the male vs female sentiment. But the good doesn’t last as we jump to an overlong second half that rapidly flails its way into becoming the clunky, bland highlights reel of Mithali’s achievements that we’ve come to expect from sports biopics and every other cliché available. Like how the other players jointly taunt, heckle and bully her mainly as she gives the initial impression of being someone from relative privilege and is thus soft. But of course, Mithali wins them over with her performances in the matches. Which eventually leads to her rise to captaincy.
At every stage throughout its runtime, the film proactively tries to highlight the underlying sentiment that the team must have felt – from being belittled to being denied equal opportunities, and the fight that Mithali put up for various such issues. Most unimaginatively, there’s the hovering jealous figure in the form of Sukumari Marwaha (Shilpi Marwaha), the ex-Captain, who becomes the unwarranted nemesis.
Even the conflict between Mithali and her brother could have been established in a better way, as the result on screen feels rather under cooked. The songs in the film barely contribute towards enhancing the narrative; in fact, they further slowdown the pace. While it’s understandable that the central subject of the film is known to be a less expressive person, nothing stops the screenplay from being crafted with a little more enthusiasm and spunk.
Performance wise, Taapsee Pannu, despite looking nothing like the real Mithali Raj, does justice to her role. Here, Pannu delivers the most restrained performance of her career. The scenes in which she battles sexism and patriarchy are arresting. Vijay Raaz is in his elements as always, delivering yet another a dependable performance.
In supporting roles, Anushree Kushwaha, Sameer Dharmadhikari, Sampa Mandal, and Shilpi Marwaha are good, however, the child actors, Inayat Verma and Kasturi Jagnam steal the show. On the whole, ‘Shabaash Mithu‘ is a subdued sports biopic made only for cricket buffs and Taapsee Pannu fans.
Directed – Srijit Mukherji
Rated – PG
Run Time – 156 minutes