Sports biopics, or for that matter, all biopics, inevitably prove tricky for Bollywood filmmakers with a propensity to miss the wood for the trees. Mercifully, Shabaash Mithu, written by Priya Aven and directed by Srijit Mukherji, does not go overboard with the urge to strike every ball out of the park.
Shabaash Mithu, which does not shy away from playing a few dot balls and waiting for the right scoring opportunities, steers clear, for the most part, of the established tics of the genre. It unpacks the Mithali Raj story without resorting to shrillness of any sort. That, from the standpoint of commercial viability, could be seen as a shortcoming. But as far as the narrative goes, it lends some strength to the film.
Taapsee Pannu, in the role of the protagonist, is in top form. She immerses herself fully in the role, subsuming her own personality and etching out an athlete and a woman who looks and feels real and convincing, even in situations that appear to teeter precariously on the edge of avoidable melodrama.
The tears, sweat and blood (literally) of a sterling sporting career serve to heighten the impact of the portrayal. With Pannu favouring restraint over grandstanding, the nature and substance of the toil that went into the making of the real-life legend of Mithali Raj touch a chord.
In the first half, the film, produced by Viacom 18 and Colosceum Media, plays largely with a straight bat within the arc that coaches always emphasize. It brings out the struggle of a middle-class girl to find her way in a sport in which women languished in anonymity. It acknowledges, and dramatizes, the role that Mithali Raj played in elevating women's cricket and earning collective respect for it.
An airport scene that precedes Mithali's late 1990s international debut in England underscores how uphill the climb was for Indian women cricketers back then. Everyone in the team has excess baggage and is told summarily to remove articles from their suitcases (mostly warm clothes for the English winter) before checking in. As the girls sit around trying to reduce the weight of their bags, the men's team arrives at the terminal to a thunderous reception from other passengers. The boys are led to the lounge with great fanfare. Much later in the film, a female fan (in another airport scene) shows Mithali where she and her teammates stand in relation to the country's male cricketers.
Shabaash Mithu loses its way a bit once the lead character reaches the goal of breaking into the national team and stamping her class on the game. The teenaged Mithali hits the ground running. She scores a century in her first international game (versus Ireland at Milton Keynes) and follows that up a couple of years later with a double century, the highest individual Test score by a woman at the turn of the millennium.
The film takes the audience back to the point in Mithali's life where she discovered cricket at the age of eight thanks to her best friend Noorie. Her natural talent catches the eye of coach Sampath Kumar (Vijay Raaz), who resorts to tough methods and helps her hone her batting skills and strengthen her powers of concentration. The transformation of a nimble young Bharatnatyam trainee into a batsman with great footwork seems here to be a natural progression. Mukherji then proceeds to turn an individual's rise in the game into a drama about the evolution of women's cricket in India in the face of neglect and ridicule. He would have done the story much good had he allowed the supporting characters to evolve and take their rightful place in the script.
The screenplay is unable to avoid the pitfall of playing up a single figure at the expense of all the others. Cricket is a team sport (which isn't underscored enough in the film) and Mithali could not have achieved what she did without her teammates chipping in at crucial junctures of her career.
That is not to say that the screenplay does not create any space at all for a handful of her teammates, most of them from modest social backgrounds, and gives them fictitious names. But that effort isn't followed up with the requisite detailing.
A Kanpur tanner's daughter, a girl who once worked in a mofussil tea stall, and another forged in the heat of a foundry—these are some of the players Mithali rubs shoulders with. Shabaash Mithu would only have benefited had these girls been allowed to assume larger roles.
One key scene that the film could have definitely done without stages a confrontation between the Indian women's cricket team members and officials of the board. The dramatic culmination makes a point all right, but undermines the otherwise understated flow of the story. Brijendra Kala, miscast as the board chief, exudes straight-faced self-importance. The scene could have done with a far more layered portrayal.
At the other end of the spectrum is a scene in which Mithali with a few of others barge into the wedding of their squad's best spinner and try to talk her out of matrimony because the ICC World Cup is round the corner. A bit of humour and irony is injected into a plot that otherwise is intent on the serious business of highlighting the obstacles India's women cricketers faced back in the early years of Mithali Raj's career.
Mithali's relationship with her first coach (here, Vijay Raaz does his bit to impart an edge to the scenes), her childhood friend who quits cricket to get married, her rivalry with the captain of the team who appears to resent her meteoric rise (another strand of the story that needed some fine-tuning) and her friendship with a few of the teammates are played up in the overlong film.
In the cricket action sequences, especially the ones in the final stages of the film, archival footage is blended with filmed portions. While the coalescence is fine, there are times when you wish it would all slow down a tad and not skip from one match to another at the pace that it does. More than momentum, what these passages impart to the proceedings is something akin to a muddle.
But all things considered, and owing in large measure to Taapsee Pannu's impressively steady performance, Shabaash Mithu is anything but a washout. The occasional false stroke does mar the overall impact, but as a fond tribute to a cricketer whose feats transformed the fortunes of women in India's most popular sport, it puts just enough on the scoreboard to not be dismissed as an innings without substance.