Chances are that one of the many shared experiences of our childhood included being part of some sort of sport or another. Every parent or teacher (or adult, really) would tell you that sports are an integral part of life, not just for your physical health but also by way of giving you an outlook on life that textbooks seldom can.
Through teamwork, failure, determination, and the works, being part of a sport larger than you seems like a wise way to learn a few life lessons, but a notion around them exists that presses it to be for the stereotypically ‘strong’. No other identity surfaces, whether that be in terms of gender identity or sexuality. Filmmaker Kirnay Bhatt with his film Keep Punching works to change just this narrative.
The film follows the journey of a boxer, Kirnay, aiming for big things in life including fighting for India. From the get-go, being a woman has hampered her and being from an orthodox family vying to get her married does not help. Her queer identity remains a secret because the idea of ‘acceptable’ differs where she comes from.
With Rocky as inspiration to her in real life, as well as in the film, the fictional character becomes a part of her journey.
When asked about the intersection of sports and sexuality, Kirnay lets us in on some background of how the two came together. He says, “Boxing has had a place in my heart and head since I watched Rocky as an adolescent. By the time I ventured into filmmaking the love turned into an ambition of one day making a boxing film. This led me to following the sport ringside and travelling all over the country in between jobs. In this time I came across someone who got married under all the various pressures, keeping her preferences hidden. The image of someone looking back on life and wondering, ‘what if?’ triggered something in me. That image along with the themes of equality and never giving up which I learned the hard way, led to the intersection of the themes you ask of.”
His belief in equality trumped any other aspect, and Keep Punching truly reflects that. “Cliched as it may sound, we are one, irrespective of who we choose to be or who we choose to love,” adds Kirnay. “The same life force enlivens all of us so who are we to differentiate and discriminate. As long as I kept reminding myself of this, and stayed honest, there was no hesitation.”
The film about a sportsperson is so much more about boxing. Of course, it is a part of who she is and what drives her but the makeup of her identity includes a lot more. And oftentimes, the exploration of identities seems somewhat comfortable through art and storytelling. As someone who possesses the vision to be able to translate that onto the screen, Kirnay believes in the power of filmmaking and shifting perspectives.
He tells us, “We have to try. It has been done. You have the power to grab people’s attention with your stories and films. So while entertaining people, if you can get them talking, debating, learning, and growing after watching your movie or listening to your story then you must try. A good movie is something that stays with you for a lifetime. And almost always because they speak of something strong thematically. They polarise audiences. Hopefully for the better.”
Keep Punching is heartwarming, yes. But it would be unwise to believe that that is all it is meant for. We love to see a woman take charge of her identity and choices in life, and we do see Kirnay do that, but the film goes beyond and shows us the why and the how of it. It is important for us as audiences to know where a sportsperson, assumed to be headstrong, falls short in her personal life and just how having her back against the wall for far too long aids in her journey to winning outside the boxing ring for the very first time.
Keep Punching is now live on MUBI India.
Find Kirnay Bhatt here.
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