In Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, Kabilian (played by Arya) fights for his own self-respect and that of his clan. But behind the clan rivalry, Sarpatta is also Kablian’s emotional story of how boxing gives him an identity and a way to rise about difficult circumstances in North Chennai where class divisions oppress him. In sporting dramas, sport is often a metaphor for human struggle that leads to the unlikely but eventual victory.
So, what the struggle is about decides how much we root for the hero. Kabilan doesn’t just win a physically draining boxing match against a difficult opponent at the end of Sarpatta. The film builds up emotions to the point that we feel he has liberated a whole class of people through his own victory.
But also, how the boxing match is staged and executed determines if the hero’s victory is satisfying. We know that the hero is going to win — all obstacles and injuries will be overcome — in the end. It’s hard to build up and release suspense with a generic format unless you have interesting variations. For example, Ranjith teases us by placing the ‘climax fight’ near the interval and cutting it off abruptly — he delays the gratification. The emotions around the final climax fight feel new because of this tweak in the build up to it.
Though we’ve seen boxing films in recent times (Valiyavan, Mr. Chandramouli) most feature boxing only in standalone stunt sequences. In fact, one of the earliest boxing scenes can be found in MGR’s Kaavalkaaran (it is said that he trained with the Sarpatta clan). Here are five Tamil films where boxing is central to the film’s plot or, at least, the climax. And the heroes have different reasons for getting into the critical life-changing boxing match: from casually stumbling into it to impress a girlfriend in Maan Karate to wanting to avenge one’s wronged mother in M. Kumaran S/O Mahalakshmi:
Like Sarpatta, Irudhi Suttru too also features an angry, irritable, but supremely talented coach with shame from the past and something to prove in the future. Madhavan’s Prabhu loses out on a chance to fight at the Olympics, thanks to politics in the boxing association. When he finds a student who could achieve his dream for him, she turns out to be someone with a strong will of her own. Sudha Kongara embraces the standard tropes of the genre (a coach with one last chance to prove himself, conflict between coach and player), but the film also has an emotional core that works beyond the well-staged boxing sequences.
Booloham is set in North Madras, again like Sarpatta, and with two rival boxing clans: Irumbu Manithar Rasamanickam and Nattu Marunthu Vaathiyar. Jayam Ravi’s Booloham belongs to the latter clan. Clan rivalries run through generations: Booloham gets into an unending sequence of beating up people in boxing matches because he wants to avenge the death of his father who was killed in a boxing match. He beats the son of his father’s killer, Arumugam, into a coma and then becomes a samiyaar to repent for it. But, TRP ratings and the money associated with boxing force him to take on more challenging matches to pay for Arumugam’s treatment.
After a sequence of contrived plot points, Boologam has a showdown with Steven George (Nathan Jones), an international boxer. The style of boxing in the film is more modern with more hits aimed at the torso of the opponent. In Sarpatta, the punches fall directly on the face to force a knockout.
M. Kumaran S/O Mahalakshmi
Director: Mohan Raja
Cast: Jayam Ravi, Nadiya, Prakash Raj, Asin
Compared to Sarpatta and Irudhi Suttru, the stakes are more personal in M. Kumaran S/O Mahalakshmi. Kumaran (Jayam Ravi) is brought up by his single mother Mahalakshmi (Nadiya). Her husband, Easwar, played by Prakash Raj, left her so he could further his career as a kickboxer. Before his mother’s death, Kumaran vows that he will get Easwar to acknowledge him as his legitimate son. While most of the film is generic, what works is the emotionally loaded build up to the climax fight where Easwar trains Kumaran and leads him to victory.
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Hansika Motwani
Maan Karate is an unusual combination of a prophecy by a siddhar, an unlikely romance, and a standard sports drama. The story starts at the end with a prediction made to five friends that a certain Peter from Royapuram would win a boxing match that carries a huge prize money. If they could find him and sponsor him, they could make money off him.
The Peter they find is a wastrel with nothing on his mind but his girlfriend (Hansika Motwani). And he agrees to become a boxer to impress her. For most of the film, it’s in the romcom zone with Sivakarthikeyan choosing flight when it comes to fight or flight. But the final climax is effective, though the build up to it is contrived, and works because of Sivakarthikeyan’s image back then of an underdog who has strength hidden behind the comic exterior.
Director: PA Arun Prasad
Cast: Vijay, Bhumika
Wikipedia calls Badri a ‘sports romantic comedy’ but it’s really almost entirely a romantic comedy in the 90s style, but with an effective boxing match for a climax. It’s only later in the film that Vijay’s Badri figures out the difference between infatuation and love, and decides to lead a responsible life.
And that’s when his kickboxing brother gets injured and it falls to Badri to win a crucial match. Even with relatively ordinary making compared to today’s standards, the fight and Badri’s victory work because they’re a satisfying counterpoint to his pointless loafing in the film till that point. It’s also the early stages of Vijay’s mass image (when compared to Ghilli’s climax a few years later).