The trail-blazing Indian cricketer Mithali Raj is the subject of a biopic that traces a part of her trail – but underplays the blazing.
Where’s the fire, you want to ask after the 163-minute Shabaash Mithu. Frozen as a feminist symbol who transformed Indian cricket for her generation and others to come, the film’s Mithali Raj rarely comes into her own.
Taapsee Pannu plays the leading run-scorer in women’s international cricket with a tanned face, a mild overbite and a morose air that belies her achievements.
Whatever joy Mithali feels from connecting bat to ball is all in the early sections of Priya Aven’s screenplay, in which a young Mithali (Inayat Verma) applies her Bharatanatyam lessons to cricket. Egged on by Noori (Kasturi Jagnam), Mithali begins to tap into her inner batting genius. Noori is the self-declared Vinod Kambli to Mithali’s Sachin Tendulkar, selflessly propping up her friend.
After spotting Mithali’s talent, coach Sampath (Vijay Raaz) puts her through a rigorous training regime. The prodigy is selected for the Indian women’s cricket team, which has more losses than wins on its card. Mithali’s first encounter with the group that she will later lead as captain is straight out of a prison drama, involving hazing and hostility.
The current captain Sukumari (Shilpa Marwaha) epitomises the observation about how crabs behave when pooled together in a bucket. The bigger antagonist is the Indian cricket board, which privileges the better-paid male cricketers over their female counterparts.
Like Neeraj Pandey’s MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Srijit Mukherji’s Shabaash Mithu gets less and less curious as it crawls towards its goal. The latter half of Shabaash Mithu is one long highlights reel, without any insight into Mithali’s leadership strategy or her unique ability to inspire her teammates to glory.
Yet, there are enough powerful individual sequences in Priya Aven’s screenplay to make even this uncritical account engaging. Editor Sreekar Prasad lets many of Aven’s stronger scenes breathe so that they reveal their wonder. The moments involving the young Mithali and Noori are a delight, especially because of the actors who play them.
The pigtailed Mithali and the close-cropped Noori alone could have kept us engaged for the entire length of the movie. Both characters are beautifully depicted by Inayat Verma, who previously lit up Anurag Basu’s Ludo (2020), and Kasturi Jagnam.
Mithali’s team-mates are fascinating too, marking their presence in a narrative dedicated to its heroine’s exploits. Shabaash Mithu eases into the garden-variety biopic a pointer to the struggles of women to play the “gentleman’s game”. One scene revolves around menstruation, another is about female desire.
Mumtaz Sorcar as Jhorna Ghosh (modelled on Jhulan Goswami) and Sampa Mandal (who played Phoolan Devi in Sonchiriya) are the standouts in a diverse team that includes women from working-class backgrounds and various castes. The stories of Mithali’s team-mates, many of whom have overcome hardscrabble backgrounds, are rendered through a music video-style montage. Yet, this sequence survives the overall hagiographic treatment. (Jhulan Goswami is getting her own biopic, titled Chakda Xpress, starring Anushka Sharma.)
But director Srijit Mukherji’s assembly has little curiosity about the individual who wears the uniform. Mithali Raj’s personality – the X-factor that made her special – is hard to discern and even harder to decipher. Cursory scenes involving Mithali’s parents (Sameer Dharmadhikari and Devadarsini Sukumaran) tell us little about the family that backed the young girl’s ambition to master a male-dominated sport.
With little to work with, Taapsee Pannu gives the sense of being adrift. Alternating between two facial expressions – stricken and determined – and saddled with being a feminist flagbearer, Pannu focuses on her athleticism. Pannu effectively reflects Mithali Raj’s batting prowess, but a different kind of biopic was needed to crawl into the cricketer’s mind.