After Rajinikanth-starrers Kabali and Kaala, Pa. Ranjith's Sarpatta Parambarai, starring Arya, released straight to OTT on Amazon Prime Video. In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, the director talks about how Muhammad Ali inspired Sarpatta Parambarai, how he designed the character and body language of Dancing Rose, and the pressure of Sarpatta's success on his next. Edited Excerpts…
All boxing or sports films are empowerment narratives. Be it Michael Mann's Ali or Denzel Washington-starrer The Hurricane or even Rocky. Did you want to modify the basic arc in Sarpatta Parambarai or did you feel the specific aspects you brought to it would be enough to make it stand apart?
I really like Cinderella Man. That and Raging Bull were the first boxing films I saw. I was astonished after I saw the 'Raging Bull'. Martin Scorcese wouldn't have handled the protagonist as a hero. And when I was researching for a boxing film I began studying the life of Muhammad Ali. I watched the Will Smith-starrer Ali. I could even say it's my all-time favorite. His acting was amazing. That film gave me great energy and motivated me every time I saw it.
A bit after Attakathi, when I wasn't doing anything for six to seven months, I watched boxing films and documentaries. I began thinking about the message of Ali's life and why people felt his victory was important. In society, we live with a lot of problems and yet continue our lives because there's something we all live for. At every point, something or someone keeps pushing us forward. That's what I learnt from the film. Ali's political ideology and the fact that he spoke against the US government during the Vietnam war made him a warrior in my mind, not just a boxer. If I had made the film after Attakathi it would have been very different, maybe more realistic. There was nothing for a hero's image. Kabilan had no arc.
I felt my craft in Attakathi wasn't understood. The film's Dalit background, comedy and nostalgia were accepted but no one spoke about the craft. So, I constructively worked on it in Madras which was well-received both for the craft and the politics. This continued in Kabali and Kaala. In Kabali, I had to bring in mass elements as I was working with a big star with an image in society. Though the films did well, a few people said Ranjith wasn't prominent in those films and I wanted to fix that with Sarpatta.
How did you come up with the character Dancing Rose?
I learnt about the boxer Dancing Manohar. Even the name was interesting. He didn't dance like in the film and we used the style of UL boxer Nassem Hamed. Similarly, for each character we had references. Dancing Rose came out well even during writing: a great sportsman with dignity and style; an inspiring person. I thought his style could be comical. Casting was hard for that role. The character worked because he was an honorable person.
Why did you make him a very fair and honorable person?
Because that's what is needed today. Many people are ethical but circumstances make them behave differently. Even killers have a story or a justification. So, why should a villain be depicted badly? I wanted to show Vembuli as an opponent and not as a villain. They are all sports lovers with no personal vengeance. They don't fight outside the ring. So, I didn't want to depict them as villains.
Can you tell us more about the saamiyar character?
My village was very small and every person had an important role. I've seen similar effeminate saamiyars. He's just a viewer in the boxing world inspired by my experiences playing cricket in my village. There was a person who knew all the rules and statistics of cricket but couldn't take a single catch. He even had an equation to predict victory or loss, he was fair in his umpiring but he held the bat in a funny way. I liked that a person who's never boxed can have opinions in that space. Tamizh Prabha [co-writer of the film] was also keen on the character.
How is your romance film coming along?
We shot for 3 days and it looks good. It's a romantic film that raises important questions about our society. Sarpatta has created a lot of pressure. As an artist, it's very hard. It's image is in my mind and I'm not able to think of shots. There's a lot of pressure. Already, my problem was to better Madras. I love films like Attakathi and Kaala. Yet everyone tells me that Madras is my best film and I've started hating it. I wanted to make a better film. I'm glad Sarpatta has replaced it.
Now, I'm wondering if I have to make a film to beat this again because it's a disturbance. This problem arises with every film an artistic director makes. It's difficult for an artist to escape his own creation. There's nothing worse than one film of yours being called the best and the others being ignored. I want to make a film that satisfies me entirely.