Cast: Arya, Pasupathy, John Vijay
Director: Pa. Ranjith
There are two stretches in the first half of Pa.Ranjith's Sarpatta Parambarai that comes closer to pure cinema than anything that has come out of the mainstream Tamil movie space in a long, long time. Shuffling between the present, the past and the future, these stretches bring together so many different filmmaking crafts that it's a miracle these scenes appear integrated, let alone flow like fine silk. That's what Pa.Ranjith manages to achieve in scenes right before and after Kabilan's (Arya, finally getting a character that has as much to offer his skills as his body) first big match, where he's pitted against a flamboyant boxer named 'Dancing' Rose.
The editing, by Selva RK, is so precise that you need to replay these scenes a few times to really understand the number of ideas circumambulating around the protagonist to give us the feeling that we're both inside the head of a boxer and outside it. They juggle timelines, moods, colour tones, sound design, BGM and action, yet you feel like you've cracked open someone's brain to see exactly how they are seeing something.
It's this kind of filmmaking that urges you to remember Ranjith for the astonishing craftsman he was in Madras and to see beyond the credentials of the powerful screenwriter he became in his two Rajini movies. In Sarpatta, the making is just as good as the writing and you feel the presence of a brain that creates moments that can only be dreamt up and then filmed. And that's arguably why an iteration of a straightforward underdog boxing drama is able to create the feeling that you're discovering Rocky for the first time in the 70's, as you sit in a theatre in Philadelphia.
One calls it straightforward because Sarpatta Paramabarai follows all the beats you'd expect in a sports drama. Shown as a series of clashes between two warring boxing clans—Sarpatta Paramabarai and Idiyappa Parambarai—we see the former trying to hold on to past glory by introducing one fighter after another to dismantle the opposition's dominance. We also get a compelling protagonist with a perceived weakness; we see their rise, their fall, the obstacles, their darkest moments and their greatest strengths, all culminating to take us to eventual triumph.
But these broad plot points are always accompanied by solid performances that bring to life a set of characters you rarely see in our movies. Take for instance, the aforementioned 'Dancing' Rose. Not only does this character provide the novelty of witnessing a boxer that's more agile than strong, but even he goes on to get a complex arc of a man with as much integrity as skill. It's much the same with John Vijay's 'Daddy', a flashy Vepery Anglo-Indian who is both a father figure and also hilarious sidekick.
What about Mariyamma (an excellent Dushara Vijayan), Kabilan's loud-mouthed wife? There are times when she appears to be just another version of a certain type of strong heroine, but later on, she gets a series of powerful scenes that depict her as both smarter and stronger than her husband.
Even Kabilan's weaknesses are something Sarpatta embraces like a superpower, rather than as an obstacle he needs to overcome. In no other movie, especially featuring a sport as 'masculine' as boxing, will you find so many men appearing to be so comfortable with crying. And it's not the subtle kind of crying with the men looking up helplessly as a tear or two roll down their cheek. In Sarpatta, central characters like Vetri (Kalaiyarasan) and Kabilan bawl like they are little kids trying to find their mother. In a genre that reinforces so many patriarchal notions, it's pleasantly surprising to see a sports movie embrace both defeat and despair as signs of personal evolution rather than as an endless pits of emasculation.
Which is why you feel so touched when Mariyamma insists Kabilan remove words like pride and honour from his mind when he discusses his dream of winning a bout for his 'clan'. And clan too is an important word here because caste is certainly a factor in how Kabilan is treated within his team. In one scene, a dominant character from this clan explicitly calls Kabilan's 'people' the kind that would beg from them for food. We learn that this person treated Kabilan's father like a slave and he even goes on to demand that Kabilan "clean his house and clear the carcass of cows when they die," if he's looking for a truce.
In lighter moments, foods like beef biryani and rabbit curry are spoken about like the most special gifts signifying Kabilan's love and respect towards other characters. What this leads to are multiple new ways of reading Kabilan's character, especially when we see him fight using a pair of blue boxing gloves later on. Given that his vathiyar Rangan (Pasupathy) is shown to be a staunch DMK supporter, one can only wait to unpack theories of what this means in today's political climate. Is Kabilan's rise, fall and then a stronger rise signifying the arc of a political movement?
Apart from the excellent filmmaking, its these elements in the writing that makes Sarpatta Parambarai so much more than a generic underdog story. The boxing sequences give you the feeling that you've entered the ring along with the characters and there's always more to them than shots of punches exchanged being intercut with reaction shots of the crowd. We hear and feel the crunch of bones just as the edit slows down time to make microseconds feel like minutes.
DOP Murali G, along with art director Ramalingam, recreate an old Madras that doesn't have to keep relying on the Napier Bridge or the Rippon Building to remind us of the period. And in the setting, especially of the boxing rings, we see a film that's completely successful in its world building.
With this level of immersion, it doesn't really bother you when one of Rangan's earlier speeches appear to teach the audience more than the character he is speaking to. Even the rather sudden change in tone and the repeated use of montages during a break in boxing doesn't really remove us from the film and Kabilan's plight.
It's a film where even cliched sports montages feels fresh with crabs, catamarines and a series of digging scenes. Besides everything, the film also marks the return of not just an important filmmaker, but also one of our finest. It's a film that looks like a butterfly and also stings like a bee.