Mary Kom the boxer is 5ft 2in. Anyone who’s seen her in person will tell you that she looks even smaller. The ever observant Rahul Bhattacharya* notes about her – “Small, but taut: a packet of tensile strength.” When the first look of Mary Kom the film came out, controversy broke out on the casting of Priyanka Chopra. It was about casting a big star and not someone who’d fit the role better – someone from Manipur – Mary Kom’s state. What made it worse was the eye make up done to make her look more Manipuri that bordered on blackface. It was understandable to cast a bankable star for the film to sell but the eye makeup threw everyone off. If it was a biopic, and Priyanka Chopra had to looks like someone from Manipur, what about Priyanka Chopra actually looking like Mary Kom? Priyanka Chopra is 5ft 6 in. This makes a difference in boxing, the weight class and the opponents Kom had to face. The film doesn’t deal with Kom’s rise from a much neglected state, save for some throwaway mentions that drew applause, and neither does it deal with Kom’s rise above her physical and boxing’s technical limitations (In the Asian championships she fought above her weight class and won. In the Olympics, 51kg was the lowest weight class). Omung Kumar is content dealing with the emotional parts with fathers, husbands and twin children and their sufferings and therein lies the film’s problems. In the same Rahul Bhattacharya essay, she says how life is all about childbirth, child-rearing, being a daughter, a mother and an elder sister. So Kumar goes for high drama and eschews the low key handling Chak-De India schooled everyone on. The result is predictable and manipulative. It is about instructing you to stand up in a movie theater for the full national anthem.
For all this, the film begins with few right notes. Omung Kumar has the right ideas but there is an incompleteness to them that’s glaring. The idea to go back and forth between timelines is a great one but it disappears midway without warning. He introduces interesting characters but they are seldom drawn into the story. Like the school friend’s boyfriend Kom beats up (or tries to) during her pre-boxing days or the boxer from an underground fight club. The stretch after the fight club to Kom bringing back the family owned cow that her dad sold off is one of the few impressive stretches in the film. Kumar also does well in juxtaposing Kom’s first major championship final and Onler’s nervousness regarding his unanswered proposal to her. There are also some laughable dialogs and performances. The scenes between Mary Kom and her father are generic and riddled with bad acting on the father’s part. And a scene that’s a turning point in her life, when she finds out she’s pregnant gets the raw treatment with the worst line possible from Onler that only makes you laugh – “yeh meri life ka best goal hai”. Really?
One of the greatest failings of the film is not focusing on Manipur (that one wrongly believed stopped with casting) and the origin story but on the emotional heft of a mother fighting outward and inward for her ailing infant. Her origin is part of the Mary Kom story and it only gets a passing mention. Priyanka Chopra though, with her 4 extra inches over the real Mary Kom, rises above the material around her. She isn’t exactly convincing as a school girl in the initial stretches but she does convince you of the grit and determination that were the boxer’s hallmarks. The film goes for more visceral impact and Chopra is all its sinew, bones and muscles.
*The Rahul Bhattacharya essay is here
(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)