Martin Scorsese once compared boxing to the theatre of life. “you’re on the defensive, you’re on the offensive, to many people in life ... life is that struggle,” he said, speaking about Raging Bull (1980), arguably one of the greatest sports films to have ever been made. This sentiment is true for any sport, especially in films. It is sometimes a metaphor for triumphant freedom (Aamir Khan’s Lagaan) or extraordinary redemption (Shah Rukh Khan’s Chak De! India). And oftentimes in Tamil films, it is a metaphor not just for the human spirit but one that explores and educates audiences about oppression.
In S Jayakumar’s latest movie Blue Star, Ranjith (Ashok Selvan) and Rajesh (Shanthnu) are rival cricket players who realise that they need to get together to navigate the conceited world of association cricket. But that’s not all. It also takes a beat to tell us the caste differences and years of subjugation that separate the two youngsters on the field. For Rajesh, cricket is passion. As his politician uncle often tells him, his goal is to only win over the Blue Star team to save “embarrassment” as letting their opponents win is nothing short of shameful. But for Ranjith, the son of a coal dispenser, the sport is a chance he has to grab with both hands. “This isn’t just a tournament, this is an opportunity,” he is reminded. The film explores both strands of oppression — class and caste — with a certain nuance that films that came before it did too.
Director Suseenthiran’s filmography has probably done more for the genre than any other. But one of his finest depictions of resilience and deep-rooted subjugation comes in his first film Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu. While Vijay’s Ghilli (2004) — a film that used kabaddi to tell a story of triumph and a simple man’s leap to greatness — was all that we knew to look for when it came to the sport at the time, Suseenthiran’s film told us how not all dreamers can be choosers.
Marimuthu’s (Vishnu Vishal) dream of persistently playing kabaddi in his village is cut off when poverty strikes his family and he is forced to become a goat herd. Although he’s part of the local village team, he’s often seen sitting on the ground, distributing jerseys for his team to change into. “They are all of different castes and statuses. But the one thing that unites them is kabaddi,” the narrator tells us. But Vennila isn’t the kind of film where spirit takes over obstacles and sports is romanticised. The team captain swears he doesn’t see caste, but when Mari is favoured for his strength in the game, pride ultimately rears its ugly head. For Mari, kabaddi isn’t a way to turn his life around — but a mere escape from his fate for every few hours a day. In the end, it is Mari’s kindness to an opponent player that indirectly ends up snatching his life. The film shows us that sometimes even if an underdog does get his success story, destiny might not be so kind.
In Jeeva (2014), Suseenthiran uses cricket to tell a similar story of deceit and injustice, but on a bigger scale. Jeeva (Vishnu Vishal) and Ranjith (Lakshman Narayan) are hungry cricketers with their eyes on the Ranji. But when they finally get selected, they realise that their religion and caste mandate them to work extra hard to achieve their goals. “In all other countries, players lose when they play. Only in our country, players lose even without getting a chance to play,” Jeeva says at one point, surmising the film’s ethos. Jeeva gets interesting when the young men realise that playing a game well alone isn’t enough. When Jeeva is awarded man of the match in a game, the Ranji head pats his shoulder. But was it a pat or patting him down to look for the sacred thread beneath his shirt?
In Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), there’s a reason why Pa Ranjith chooses to introduce his protagonist by showing us his place of work: the film begins with a distracted Kabilan (Arya) at the coal factory sprinting to catch a boxing match in his sweaty khakis. Even if the movie is about a simple rivalry between the Sarpatta and Idiyappa clans, the bigger (and more important) story here is the uprising of the oppressed. Thaniga (Muthukumar) doesn’t want his nephew to win, but he particularly wants him to win against Kabilan. “They didn’t prevent Sarpatta’s victory. They prevented yours,” Daddy tells Kabilan, minutes after he’s paraded naked on the same boxing ring he found his calling on, stripping him of dignity and his desire for the game. Ranjith establishes differences between the oppressed and the oppressor through images that are understated — while Vaathiyar (Pasupathy) cycles beside Arya on his run to Sathya studios for training, Thaniga is seen sitting on a cushy car beside a similar run with his nephew — and some obvious ones — Ambedkar looks on in the background as a fellow coal worker encourages Kabilan: “Our time has arrived.”
Sport as an opportunity continues as an understated theme in Vetri Maaran’s Vada Chennai (2018) too. Rajan (Ameer), an influential smuggler in North Chennai, encourages the kids in his area to take up playing carrom board to prevent the life that precedes the neighbourhood’s reputation. Anbu (Dhanush) is one such carrom champion, whose life takes a turn when he murders a man a day before the National Championships. The same carrom board that dangled a good life in front of him ironically becomes a reason for him to do another stabbing in jail — he attacks Senthil (Kishore), a gangster from the opposite camp with a wooden shard from the board. This attack, however, eventually leads him to his true fate as protector of his neighbourhood.
Opportunities and oppression in a sports setting aren’t restricted just to the men in cinema. Atlee’s Bigil (2019), as massy an entertainer it is, gave us Tamil cinema’s first women’s football team and a glossy portrait of their struggles. In RS Durai Senthilkumar’s Ethir Neechal (2013), even if Valli’s (Nandita Swetha) story makes a small part of the film’s flashback, she gave us something that we rarely see in films — a female coach. Valli is a runner from a village who is at the top of her game. So, when she just about makes it to the state tournament — after having borne the wrath of every naysayer in the village repulsed by her dad spending all the money on her career instead of her wedding — her dreams are crushed by a corrupt coach, who uses her gender to oppress her.
“There is no pain worse than being snatched the opportunity to show your talent,” Sivakarthikeyan tells the crowd after winning a marathon under her guidance. While we wish the film still gave Valli the chance to speak for herself, it’s still an impressive effort to show us the different ways in which men use gender as a tool to subjugate. Sudha Kongara’s Irudhi Suttru (2016) and Arunraja Kamaraj’s Kanaa (2018) gave us hopeful spins on the woman in sports narrative, albeit through different lenses. If the former tackled this with a complicated romance between a coach and his student, the latter does this with a daughter’s unbridled love for her father. Nevertheless, both films present two women the opportunity they never quite expected — boxing for Madhi (Ritika Singh) provides stability in life that she’s hardly familiar with, while cricket for Kowsi (Aishwarya Rajesh) is a stage to draw awareness to an issue close to her heart. The life-changing power of opportunity. Isn’t that what makes a sports film, as overused as the genre is, exhilarating?