Noble intentions but writer Priya Aven, director Srijit Mukherji fail to provide the ideal pitch [screenplay] for women cricketers to flourish and express their point.
Rating: 2.5 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
Phew! Another sports biographical film is set to be released in theatres. The 83  snub is still fresh in our minds. Not that we didn’t like the Ranveer Singh-starrer film. The cricket connoisseur in us loved it. But if a film on India’s maiden One-Day International World Cup triumph [in 1983] didn’t excite the theatrical audience, we feared whether they would watch a biopic on India’s most accomplished women batter, Mithali Raj? Besides, neither Raj or any Indian woman cricketer has any World Cup medals to show.
The now retired 39-year-old Raj holds the women’s record for the most number of ODI runs – 7805. She also holds the record for the longest career [men or women] in international cricket – 22 years, 274 days. She is followed by fellow Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar, who played for 22 years, 91 days. There is still a stark difference though between the two legends. While Tendulkar played in 200 Test matches, 463 ODIs, 1 T2OI and 78 IPL games, Raj, in her record long career, played in just 12 Tests, 232 ODIs, 89 T20Is. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a women’s Indian Premier League. Therein lies the gulf.
Indian women’s cricket has a long history, but it’s only after reaching the finals of the 2017 ODI World Cup and the T20I World Cup in 2020 that cricket fans stood up and took notice. Raj led India to the final of the 2017 ODI World Cup.
Shabaash Mithu , the Mithali Raj biopic is not looking for laurels like their male counterparts. It simply wants recognition for the part that the women have played thus far in the development of women’s cricket in India. While it is a Mithali Raj biopic, but the film tells the story of Women in Blue [Indian women’s cricket] as a whole. As lead actress Taapsee Pannu said in many interviews, her film covers the story of Indian women’s cricket through Mithali’s lens.
Here is an acclaimed batter, who all throughout her career let her bat do the talking. We recall sports presenters struggling to get words out of Raj’s mouth during many post-match presentations. Even with a mic in her hand, at times, it was difficult to gauge what the soft-spoken Raj said. Unassuming, quiet, that is how Raj has been on and off the field.
It posed quite a challenge for the bubbly Punjabi Taapsee Pannu. With Raj unable to devote much time to Pannu, the actor had to reach out to Raj’s former colleagues – Nooshin Al Khadeer Neetu David to get a third person’s perspective. How do you emote someone who is Sphinx-like? How do you give the viewers a sense of what’s going inside Raj’s mind and soul?
Credit to Pannu who keeps it simple and wins you over with her understated performance. There is no unnecessary show of emotions. Like Raj, Pannu offers the dead bat to whatever is thrown at her in this journey. Don’t mistake that silence for any weakness. It’s her tribulations that gave rise to the steely resolve within. If an eight-year-old Mithali wouldn’t flinch at a nail being hammered in her shoe by her first coach Sampat [Vijay Raaz], nothing would faze her in future. Both the young [Inayat Verma] and the adult Mithali [Pannu] do a fine job.
Young Mithali’s introduction to cricket is a story within itself. The Rajasthan-born Tamil girl’s family had shifted to Hyderabad. There she befriended a firecracker Muslim girl Noori [Kasturi Jagnam], who loved playing cricket. Jagnam is simply brilliant. Initially, we thought that Noori is inspired by Nooshin Al Khadeer, but the latter played for India, while poor Noori had to give up her dreams. Maybe, it is all part of fiction.
The nickname Mithu is intriguing too. The Raj family, in particularly, the granny pinned hopes on the grandson Mithun playing cricket. Big brother might have the additional letter (N) in his name, but Mithu had more talent. How the astrologers, numerologists would have a field day condemning that N in Mithun.
It’s fine to limit the on field action, but the drama by director Srijit Mukherji isn’t quite captivating. Creative liberties can’t be accommodated at the cost of facts. Raj was picked for the Indian team in 1999, where the first assignment was playing Ireland in England. At the airport, the women’s team goes unrecognizable. However, few minutes later, the men’s team presence at the same airport leads to fans thronging for their autographs. To the best of our knowledge, Indian men’s team had returned earlier from England after failing to qualify for the 1999 World Cup semi-finals. The women’s trip to England began on 26 June 1999 with the men’s team already returning home. Unless some male players delayed their return. That is assuming though that the two teams bumped into each other at the London airport.
The champion Williams sisters (Venus, Serena) turned sports biographies on their head by choosing to tell their story through eyes of their father in King Richard  and without showing a single Grand Slam title win. Similarly, it’s commendable on Raj’s part to downplay the individual achievements, and place Indian women’s cricket above everything else. However, validation has to be sought through one’s own game, and not by pointing out any double standards. Raj and co. are literally portrayed as persona non grata.
While urging his cricketer bride to not give up on the sport, the groom requests for a dream meeting with the great Sachin Tendulkar some day. The bride reminds her groom that her colleague Mithali is like the Sachin of women’s cricket. The director and his writer Priya Aven perhaps overdo this men vs women comparison. We fear such tropes border on the side of envy. That will certainly not lift women’s cricket. Sports is a cruel business too. You win and the world is at your feet. Lose consistently, and such attitude also questions the focus of Raj and other cricketers.
In her prime, she perhaps didn’t get the attention that she deserved but there was no so such story in the final five years of her career. Unfortunately, it is marred by inconsistent performances, rumoured rift with then coach W.V Raman. Shaabaash Mithu  only cover’s Raj’s journey till the 2017 World ODI World Cup, and the warm reception upon their arrival back home.
Usually, sports biographies bank on fiction to create friction. Often, it is the people within the fraternity that threaten to put hurdles in the protagonist’s path. Unfortunately for Raj, it is her skipper Sukumari who plays that dirty role. We presume this to be fiction otherwise Raj’s then captain Chanderkanta Kaul wouldn’t be pleased.
After a bright beginning [Mithali’s childhood], the screenplay plays out like a dull maiden over. Taapsee Pannu offers the straight bat, but the action isn’t that engaging. At 162 minutes, it feels like a marathon Mithali Raj knock. The sports connoisseurs would get hold of it, but the average viewer would struggle with the timelines of events. Surprisingly, the director and the writer have taken few things for granted here. Post her debut game in 1999, we’re fast tracked to the 2017 Women’s ODI World Cup. Raj’s then world record highest Test score 214* against England in 2002 is just a passing mention. But this is the story of ‘Women in Blue’, not the women in white.
Raj’s introduction to cricket playing with the sota [little bat-like equipment used to beat clothes while washing] would resonate with many cricketers. However, young Mithu idolizing Sachn Tendulkar, who was only a year old in international cricket, is a bit hard to digest. Tendulkar took a few years before becoming the top sports icon of the country.
A few tracks by Amit Trivedi are fine, but maybe there is one too many for a sports biographical drama. Often the end credits in sports-based films tend to showcase archive pictures/footages of the original person. But we see none of it. Is Mithali Raj too shy to share few personal pictures/memorabilia? For a person with zero interest in cricket, how would they know what Mthali Raj looked like?
Shaabaash Mithu  does tell Mithali and other humble women cricketers’ stories. If not money, It certainly makes a pitch for equal respect, adulation for women cricketers like their super star male counterparts. Taapsee Pannu, Inayat Verma, Kasturi Jagnam deserve our shabaasi [kudos], but the audience is likely to haul up writer Priya Aven and director Srijit Mukherji for some tough dressing room talk.