Special interview: Filmmaker Srijit Mukherji returns to his first love, cricket, with Shabaash Mithu
The film stars actor Taapsee Pannu as former Indian cricketer Mithali Raj
Many moons ago an article in a vernacular magazine on cricketer Sandhya Agarwal exposed filmmaker Srijit Mukherji to the whole new world of women’s cricket. Agarwal scored 190 against England in 1986 breaking Betty Snowball’s unbeatable score of 189 that remained a record since 1935 and was often referred to as the Gavaskar of women's cricket. “I was absolutely impressed as a child and realised that there was an entire parallel universe of women’s cricket that never came to limelight,” reminisces Srijit, a cricket buff. He was in primary school then.
Naturally, when the offer to direct Shabaash Mithu, a film on women’s cricket’s most iconic captain, Mithali Raj, came his way, it was too tempting an opportunity for Srijit to turn down.
As a true cricket lover, Srijit watches all the games and long before he made Shabash Mithu, he was a fan of Australian cricketer Ellis Perry. “I also love Belinda Clark’s exploits. In fact, Clark was the first individual to score a double century in an ODI and that was a favourite question whenever I conducted quizzes because most people start thinking of male names. Among the Indian players I feel Smiriti Mandana is a huge asset to the team, Sneh Rana is a great talent besides Richa Ghosh and Shefali Verma,” he tells us, sitting comfortably in his sprawling drawing room strewn with trophies and accolades that he has gathered so far in his eventful 12 years of filmmaking.
"I am very excited about Shabaash Mithu, especially because its’ a cricket movie. Cricket has always been my first love and this film brings me back to my first love. Also, this is my first sports film,” enthuses the multiple National Award-winning director.
Starring the talented actor Taapsee Pannu as Mithali Raj, Shabaash Mithu is slated for release in theatres on July 15. This will be Srijit’s third Hindi outing after the films, Begum Jaan and Sherdil: The Plilibhit Saga, and we speak to the eloquent director about how he made Taapsee enjoy the game, what’s ailing women’s cricket and more.
We had Lagaan way back in 2001 then 83 last year and now, Shabaash Mithu, do you think Bollywood is milking cricket on screen quite often?
I think there can never be an overdose of cricket on screen. Like me, for a lot many, this game is sustenance and I don't think people ever get bored with cricket as a sport or in films. 83 is a fantastic film but it is very distinctly different from Shabaash Mithu, which talks about a lot of other things than cricket.
Also, artwise, sports films, in general, have a certain kind of template which this film in many instances escapes or avoids and kind of underlines a lot of other issues which have a resonance in a bigger paradigm or structure.
What are these other issues that the film addresses?
If you remove the cricketing aspect of the legend that’s Mithali, there are certain incidents in the films that bring out the continuous struggle and fight against inequality that these fabulous players have to face, which also marks Mithali’s career and her leadership skills and the incredible mark she has left on the women’s game. If you capture Mithali’s life, obviously these would come up and we didn’t really have to add anything for drama because her life already is interspersed with a lot of drama. She is actually the flag bearer of this movement for equality between the two games.
In fact, the last line in the trailer ends with a question where Mithali was actually asked who’s her favourite male cricketer and her answer is something which pretty much started off a movement in terms of awareness and gender equality. And she walked the talk, she achieved what she’s achieved, with the longest ODI career, which is overall a great inspiration for other aspiring women cricketers.
Do you think things are slowly improving for women in cricket?
Definitely, it has improved majorly. The terminology is changing, it’s no longer a batsman, we call them batters. Of course, a lot needs to be done. Look at what tennis and even badminton have achieved in terms of level playing ground for men and women. Women’s tennis is no less exciting and fascinating than men's tennis in terms of centre court attendance, telecast, sponsorship the infrastructural support, which is starkly missing in cricket. But I think things are drastically improving since the 2017 World Cup when India almost beat England to bring the cup home. Since then, a lot of conversation and awareness has been there and now, things are much better.
How much does the script stick to reality while depicting Mithali’s life?
The entire script was written by who shadowed Mithali for a long time and it was approved by Mithali herself. Of course, there are dramatic diversions and necessary fictionalisation and creative liberties have been taken but all of it has been done keeping in mind the narrative and after being approved by Mithali herself.
Did you have the chance to meet Mithali in person?
No, since we shot during the pandemic, but we had endless online live sessions to know more deeply about the technical aspects of cricket, her stances, grip, favourite batting strokes and body language on the ground.
How was it working with Taapsee Pannu?
Taapsee is an extremely hard-working actor, to begin with. I have never seen such a dedicated actor. That she is an athlete, helped her get into the groove of Mithali’s character to a great extent. As a cricket buff myself, I wanted Taapsee to not only play cricket for the camera but also actually enjoy playing the game. Before the filming began, I used to go for net practice for about two months with Taapsee and the other girls, and we practised almost every day for three-four hours in the morning. When we started shooting, there would be times when I would actually announce pack up, I could still see Taapsee playing on the ground. Besides, the fact that the rest of the actors are state-level players, lent a lot of authenticity to the entire filming process.
We will soon see Anushka Sharma playing bowler Jhulan Goswami in Chakda Xpress?
I am so happy this is happening. Jhulan is another legend and her contribution to the game has to be acknowledged. I am so glad that another movie is being made on Jhulan because these people have been pillars of women’s cricket and their contribution has to come to the forefront. I hope both films help amplify the movement around women's cricket.
You were also supposed to make a Bengali film on the famed heptathlete Swapna Barman, with actor Sohini Sarkar playing her. What happened to that?
The film got stalled when Sohini tore her ligament. I gave it a very good thought and realized, given our resources, budgets and time constraints, it would be much more practical to make Swapna Burman act her part than make an actress practice seven disciplines of the game and turn into a heptathlete. I have even told Swapna and her coach about the same and if I do it in the future I will adopt that plan only.
What are your other upcoming projects both in Hindi and Bengali?
There are a couple of Hindi web series and films in diverse genres. One series is an action thriller and the other is a drama and there’s a thriller film and a romantic drama. The cast is yet to be finalised for all four. In Bengali, I will start filming Loho Gouranger Naam next year, since it needs to be filmed during a particular time of the year. Also, I am polishing the script of the web series, Padatik, which is a biography of celebrated late filmmaker Mrinal Sen.
Shabaash Mithu releases on July 15
PICTURES: Siladitya Dutta, assisted by Bipradip Chakraborty / Makeup and hair: Abhijit Paul, assisted by Sananda Mondal Laha / Styling: Aisha Desmukh / Clothes by Surbhi Pansari and Jyotee Khaitan