I was training at a fitness centre that had boxing as an option. Every week, I met this girl from Arunachal Pradesh who would train in boxing — she was barely 5 ft tall, but had the speed and agility of Flash. She could defeat men twice her weight. I often told her that I would never spar with her in the ring, and she’d just laugh. She then introduced me to many of her friends, most of whom were athletes, while also having a full-time career. A conversation with these inspiring people made me realise that football and boxing are inspiring the youth who take up athletics. Not surprising, though. Indian boxer, Nikhat Zareen recently brought a lot of fame and glory to the country when she won the World Boxing Championship. Over the last decade or so, Indian boxing has slowly and steadily made a place for itself in the world arena, with names like Mary Kom, Vijender Singh, and Dingko Singh — all inspiring personalities that Bollywood has noticed, and wants to talk about.

This explains the influx of films with boxing at the centre of them, from older stories such as Mithun Chakraborty’s Boxer to the 2017 Telugu drama Guru, to Mary Kom, Saala Khadoos, Pailwaan, Mukkabaaz, Toofaan, Anek, and Sarapatta Parambarai talking about the sport, and what it stands for. Boxing has become a popular sub- genre of the sports film space in a country where the number of people actually taking up the sport is relatively low. Anjum Rajabali, who wrote the Farhan Akhtar-starrer Toofaan, explains the popularity of the theme. “In a film, what you are showing is not so much the reality of the sport as much as it is the emotional and dramatic extract that you get from it. What you need to look at is the relationship between the character and what he is struggling to achieve. It is important to explain a few basics about the craft in a way that the audience is able to connect with it emotionally and say ‘this is what the character is trying to do’”.

Explaining why Toofaan was based on boxing, he reveals that it was in fact Farhan Akhtar who wanted to play a boxer. “I agreed to it because I had a bit of a relationship with boxing during my school days. There’s a certain quality of that sport that you need to take on, a primary one being the ability to take pain, and that is what appeals to me about characters. Essentially, what makes a character overcome enormous odds, how much pain is the character able to take emotionally. Even in my first film, Ghulam, Aamir Khan plays a street boxer. The grain came from On The Waterfront, but there they never really showed the main character boxing. In Ghulam when Aamir Khan is in the boxing match, you can see his character going through the combination of the emotional pain of his brother letting him down, as well as his atonement for his sins by taking those blows. That’s what the audience picks up on as well,” says Rajabali.

Sima Agarwal, screenplay writer of Anek, explains why she and her co-writer, Yash Keswani, decided to make the lead actress Aido (Andrea Kevichüsa) a boxer in the film. “During our research, we realised that boxing and football are to the Northeast what wrestling is to Haryana. Also, for the fight that Aido has in her life, boxing is an apt metaphor. The sport is the channel for her to bring out the conflict that the film is talking about.” While for Agarwal and Keswani, the boxing scenes were an external representation of the character’s internal battle, for Vineet Kumar Singh, it was a chance to showcase his talent. He not only played a boxer in Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, but also wrote the film with his sister, Mukti Singh Srinet. “My sisters and I have been national level basketball players. My third sister is an international athlete.

We have been surrounded by sports since childhood. It took a lot of time to write the script of Mukkabaaz. I was clear about wanting to write about a solo sport; I didn’t want to dilute the story by writing a team game as I was writing the film for myself. Why boxing resonated with me is because it gives you a never-give-up attitude. And that has been part of my journey as an actor. In boxing, when you get punched by your opponent, you might fall or get a bit dazed, but you fight back. And this is life,” he adds. Debutant director Kirnay Bhatt recently released his short film, Keep Punching, on Mubi. The film, inspired by true events, is about a closeted queer boxer from a Himalayan town who first has to win outside the ring before conquering her dreams inside it. “Boxing is personal to me. I have grown up watching Rocky, it is one of my favourite films. I’ve been researching Indian boxing for many years. The idea of not giving up is what I am trying to communicate with the story,” he details. 

But why are films based on boxing becoming so popular? Bhatt analyses, “If you look at movies over the years, movies made on boxing have generally done well. Every person relates to a boxing film differently. As a film-maker and as an audience, boxing is very metaphorical for life. The fight is so basic, it is so elemental, so natural, it highlights natural instinct — we are all fighting different things in our lives, and can associate our emotions with those on the screen. When you relate to a character and join them in their struggle, more often than not, you feel overjoyed with their win. It works as a sub genre because it feels more personal,” he concludes. Here’s hoping this helps the sport become as popular off-screen too.