Director: Pa. Ranjith
Writers: Pa. Ranjith, Tamizh Prabha
Cinematography: Murali G
Edited by: Selva RK
Cast: Arya, Shabeer Kallarakkal, Dushara Vijayan, Pasupathy, Anupama Kumar and Sanchana Natarajan
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
About an hour into Sarpatta Parambarai, there is a boxing match between the hero Kabilan and a boxer named Dancing Rose. Kabilan belongs to the Sarpatta clan and Rose to the Idiyappa. They represent generations of rivalry in the ring. Kabilan is a newbie with a lifelong passion for the sport. Rose is a legend who came back from retirement only to defeat Kabilan and destroy his dreams of fighting Vembuli, the Idiyappa clan's most ferocious and famous boxer, which of course will further humiliate the Sarpatta clan who anyway have been losing for decades. Dancing Rose is named that because he doesn't just box, he pirouettes around Kabilan, doing cartwheels like a court jester. His nimbleness and attitude seem to be mocking Kabilan. But this is a boxing movie and I don't think it's a spoiler to tell you that the underdog wins.
Rose, played by a superb Shabeer Kallarakkal, is a minor player in a sprawling canvas. But what's remarkable is how distinctive and memorable he is. And this is what makes Sarpatta Parambarai so brilliant. Writer-director Pa. Ranjith reinvents the usual tropes and roots the narrative in a masterfully crafted world populated by fleshed-out characters. Rose isn't there just to further Kabilan's ascent. He brings in color, sparkle and a keen sense of the time. And do pay attention to what he says to Vembuli at the end of the film – it speaks volumes of the sportsman he is. This is not a film dabbling in simplistic heroes or villains.
Sarpatta Parambarai is set in the mid-70s in North Madras. The Emergency and the subsequent imprisonment of political leaders are key plot points but Ranjith doesn't make a flashy show of period details. You notice it in the hairstyles and bell-bottom pants. This is the story of a working-class man who goes up against caste, class, alcoholism, hardscrabble circumstances, the lure of making easy money with criminal activities and his own family to prove his mettle, not just as a boxer but as a human being. Kabilan's story runs for almost three hours but at no point does the duration seem excessive. Ranjith plots the dramatic beats with absolute control and finesse. So a pivotal boxing match – the stakes are so high that in an ordinary film, this would be the climax – takes place in the middle of the film. And what follows after is even richer than what has come before.
Boxing is raison d'être, his reason for being. It's part of his DNA, a legacy from his late father who was also a boxer. But the sport has brought such tragedy to the family that his mother refuses to let Kabilan attend a match – even when he is a strapping adult, she beats him in public. When he insists on boxing, she simply stops talking to him. Her hysterical response and Kabilan's meekness when faced with her anger are moving and in places, slightly comedic. He's a lumbering man capable of inflicting serious harm and yet she reduces him to a whimpering, little boy. Her extreme hate for the sport tints Kabilan's passion with sadness. In one critical fight, she prays to God that her son loses.
This is a film about hulking men and ideas of pride, clan and the honour of the clan. But the women are no pushovers. Apart from Kabilan's mother, there's his wife Mariyamma, played by a terrific Dushara Vijayan. Mariyamma is Kabilan's equal in every sense. She refuses to let him wallow in self-pity and she protects him when he stumbles. She's fierce and wise. At one point she tells him: It's a sport. If you lose, you lose. She also insists that Kabilan stop associating honour and pride with his clan.
The other anchor in Kabilan's life is his coach Rangan, played by a superb Pasupathy. Even when he is down and out, Rangan has a majesty about him. He casts a pitiless eye on his pupils and doesn't suffer fools gladly – even when it's his own son. The screenplay gives ample time to these characters, which is what makes Sarpatta Parambarai such a dense story. This isn't simply one man's tale of triumph. It's a rousing journey which plumbs the depths. When Kabilan loses direction, his life becomes so wretched that it's tough to watch. Ranjith doesn't make it easy either for him or for us.
The bouts in the ring follow the same principle. Kabilan's opponents are fierce. They inflict damage. Sound designer Anthony J B Ruban underlines the breaking of flesh and bodies with terrific effects. Editor Selva RK and DOP Murali G work in top form. Incredibly, Ranjith manages to be inventive even with the standard-issue training montage – Kabilan's coach has him chase crabs and dig holes in the sand, against a rousing anthem by Santhosh Narayanan. You are your light, you are your path. Rest not, the song goes. It's exhilarating to watch.
But all the stellar craft would have faltered if Arya didn't inhabit the character so wholly. The actor's physical transformation is the least impressive thing here – he is equally convincing as he smashes his opponents' faces and as he grovels at his wife's feet begging her not to leave him. It's also noteworthy that in a film so steeped in aggression and fighting, men aren't afraid of crying. Kabilan weeps like a child. So does Rangan's son Vetri, played by a solid Kalaiyarasan.
Sarpatta Parambarai would have been magic on a big screen – every note of boxing glove meeting flesh enhanced and magnified. But Ranjith has created such an immersive, gripping world that the small screen works just as well.
You can watch the film on Amazon Prime Video.