It’s always fun to see a didactic film squander the moral high ground. The president of the Indian cricket board summons a peon and asks him to name five women cricketers, or even one. He’s hoping to humiliate Mithali Raj (Taapsee Pannu), India captain, and her teammates, who’ve come to protest being given jerseys bearing the names of the men’s team. The peon can’t name a single player—point made. But then Raj and the others pull off their jerseys to reveal shirts with their own names. The only problem is, apart from Raj, the names are different from the team that existed at the time.
You can only marvel at the audacity of a film that lectures its audience for not giving women’s cricket its due, then fictionalises almost the entire team that made it to the finals of the 2017 World Cup. Director Srijit Mukherji will say, of course, that he didn’t get the rights to the actual names, which is why Jhulan Goswami in Shabaash Mithu is Jhorna Ghosh, and so on. If you think this is reasonable, imagine a film featuring the men’s team at the 2011 World Cup. What manner of ridicule would a film that came up with up fake names for Sachin or Dhoni be subjected to?
By taking the same liberties it asks its audience not to, Shabaash Mithu does a disservice to Raj and to women’s cricket. Raj retired a legend of the game, maybe the greatest Indian woman cricketer ever. But you wouldn’t know that from watching this film. What made her a great batter? We never see Raj build an innings from start to finish. We’re only shown highlight reels—boundaries, fifties, centuries, dismissals. Nor are we offered comparisons—barely anyone besides Raj puts bat to ball in the film.
Not once do we see a ball bowled to Raj and played without a cut interrupting before impact with the bat. If not in a game, couldn’t there at least have been an honest shot of her hitting the ball in the nets? The disappointments of Shabaash Mithu will be familiar to long-suffering watchers of Indian cricket films. But at least 83 or MS Dhoni: The Untold Story were able to establish a game narrative, so viewers are vaguely aware of the stakes, the qualities of the opposition, and the challenges before the protagonist. The matches in Mukherji’s film are so rushed and interchangeable that the only constant is Raj scoring runs.
Cloying as it is, I was more invested in the early parts of Raj’s story. She accidently discovers cricket as an eight-year-old, applying a tenet from her Bharatanatyam training to help keep her eye on the ball. She’s mentored by a gruff, supportive coach, Sampath (Vijay Raaz), who takes one look at her and tells her family she could play for India. Sampath teaches her to bat in a classical manner—at one point nailing her right shoe to the crease so it doesn’t move. It’s a nice touch, though I’d have liked to see how the rest of Raj’s formidable technique was assembled. It would also have been instructive to see Raj compete with boys her age and older (she trained in an all-male academy as a junior cricketer) and figure out how to survive.
When Raj retired, cricket writer Jarrod Kimber said her technical perfection was such that her game “almost didn't feel real at times”. The Raj of Shabaash Mithu feels unreal too, because there’s no sense of fallibility. The only time she struggles as a batter is when she’s newly selected for the national team—and that’s because she’s being hazed, being made to bat without a helmet through period cramps. There’s no sense of how she adapted—or was unable to adapt—over the course of her 23-year-long career. “Her inability to play a grammatically incorrect shot meant teams could put together set ring fielders knowing she would stay and make runs, but not at the current speeds,” Kimber wrote of late-career Raj. If the film is anything to go by, Raj never hit a ball to a fielder in her life.
When she plays complex individuals, like in Manmarziyaan and Thappad, Pannu can be compelling. But her Mithali cuts a bland figure: from a family of means, determined, polite, inspiring. Mukherji and writer Priya Aven try to manufacture conflict through the cliché of a jealous captain, but Raj soon conquers her with kindness. Whatever vitriol there is is reserved for the Board of Control for Cricket in India, referred to here as the Cricket Association of India. Happy as I am to pile on the BCCI, it would have been instructive to know how the women’s team regards a cricket-viewing public—one kept at arm’s length by the men’s team—that rarely supports them in a meaningful way. But this is beyond Shabaash Mithu; indeed, beyond Indian biopics, which invert the Bob Dylan line "To live outside the law, you must be honest": they live within the law, and are dishonest.