When I saw Mahesh Narayanan's Malik recently, I was left with this question: Given how different the Tamil and Malayalam film industries and audiences are, is it possible to make something like Malik in Tamil?After watching Pa Ranjith's Sarpatta Parambarai, I have the answer, and it's a big fat yes. Why this comparison? Because, first, both films are epic in scope and sprawl, yet intimate in terms of emotions. One could almost say that they deal with micro-emotions.
Two: The broad arc of both films is based on a generic template. Mahesh Narayanan, in fact, said that Malik was influenced by The Godfather and Nayakan. And Sarpatta is like every underdog boxer movie you've seen. But again, that's just the broad narrative arc. Look beyond, and you'll see that both films dig deep into their specific milieus and characters, and in such subtle ways, that the familiar templates become fresh all over again. Three: Both films are quite long but that's not a problem because they're filled with characters and action that makes them whiz by. And the length is justified by a documentary-like integrity. They document very specific places and very specific communities and — most importantly, very specific politics.
Sarpatta is set in the mid-1970s, during the Emergency. In the background of the narrative, DMK is shown to resist the might of the Centre, and eventually, we see the rise of the MGR-led AIADMK. In fact, one of the robes worn by a boxer has a DMK logo at the back; a song begins with the words 'vaan vidinjaachu: in other words, it's the rising sun. Four: Just like Fahadh Faasil's Sulaiman in Malik, Arya's Kabilan in Sarpatta isn't romanticised, he isn't glorified. They're life-like figures with flaws. And five, and most importantly: Both Malik and Sarpatta are superb examples of form and cinematic craft, and if we have to begin talking about Sarpatta, we have to begin with the behind-the-scenes team.
The cinematographer, Murali G, and editor, Selva RK, immerse us into the world of Kabilan and the world of boxing (every punch, every cut, every jab) and the world of North Madras in the mid-1970s. Santhosh Narayanan's score is amazing. The costume (Aegan Ekambaram) and production designers (T Ramalingam) are people we usually don't notice, but for a period film like Sarpatta, they're absolutely crucial. The sound design (Prathap, Anthony Ruban) is superb. The boxing sounds aren't overdone; it's all very realistic. It's rare to find a film where everyone, including the director (who has co-written the film with Tamizh Praba), is at the top of their game.
Sarpatta is Ranjith's finest film yet, so let's go on a little flashback. He started out with Attakathi, where his directing talent was instantly evident. The film is about a loser who repeats the same pattern over and over again, but there wasn't one moment in the screenplay that felt repetitive to us as the audience. Ranjith burst into the scene as a talent and grew into an even better director in Madras (the film that everyone said I didn't get). He took a cliched story of youngsters being manipulated by politicians — Subramaniapuram meets Satya — but he made it greater than the sum of its parts, especially with the way he used that wall like a trope out of a horror movie.
Ranjith's next two outings — the mediocre Kabaali and and the slightly better Kaala — made me fear we were losing a fine filmmaker to his ideology. Or, perhaps, he hadn't found the right cinematic way to express his ideas. Or maybe it was the pressure of directing a superstar, the Superstar. Sarpatta Parambarai, thus, is a big relief. Ranjith is in glorious form both as writer and director in this story of an underdog-boxer.
For example, the nearly twenty-minute opening scene establishes the boxing milieu in one go. In the scene where Rangan Vaathiyar, Kabilan's coach, played by Pasupathy, proposes Kabilan's name for a do-or-die match, you get the sense of a real-life event in the way the scene is staged. So much is happening with regard to the coach and Kabilan and the other characters, in all corners of the space: the direction is spectacular.
Sarpatta works unlike recent boxing films like Toofan (which seems cliched and boring) because Kabilan is not just about Kabilan's relationship with his coach or his wife (Mariamma, played by Dushara Vijayan), it's also about his mother and his wonderful Anglo-Indian neighbours. Kabilan becomes a fully three-dimensional character, a part of this community; and you could say that for all the characters, especially with their period detailing, which makes them colourful and interesting. There's an oppressor character in the film and he's cliched in the sense that he doesn't bring much that's new in terms of his character arc, but the events around him are so specific that even he comes across as fresh.
And oh, the screenplay. Kabilan's mother has a specific reason why he shouldn't box and yet he becomes a boxer due to his love for and loyalty to his coach. Later, when Rangan Vaathiyar realizes that Kabilan has become exactly the kind of person his mother feared, he kicks him out. The events are beautifully interlocked. And here's my favourite stroke of writing genius: Usually in an underdog film, the big finale — the big fight, with the big enemy — happens right at the end. But here about one-and-a-half hours into the film, this big fight almost happens. I was gobsmacked. And afterwards, you get a truckload of story. Usually, you'd get the closing credits.
We can see how hard they've worked on the writing, because even the inevitable training montage looks different. I love a phrase in the song that plays over the montage: neeye thadai, neeye vidai (you're the obstacle and also the solution). That fits Kabilan perfectly. He has created his own obstacles and now he has to find his own solutions.
In a recent Film Companion South interview, Ranjith said that Sarpatta is not so much about caste as it's about class. It's about a blue-collar worker becoming a boxer who wears blue-colour gloves. (I'll leave the significance of the colour to decoders.) But there's something else that resembles caste in this film, and that's the parambarai-s themselves, the various clans of boxing. Within these clans, there are rivalries. What started as one clan — after the sport was learnt from the British — now has become as divisive as the caste system. There's talk of how Kabilan's father was treated like a slave. A character asks why these clans are associated with maanam, or honour? Why not just fight and let the best man win? This again brings to mind a kind of caste pride. Within this small ecosystem, there are oppressors and oppressed. All this exists in the film as a crucial engine of the narrative but also as a nice continuation of ideas Ranjith keeps discussing.
There are very few problem areas and they are easy to brush aside. I wished the history of boxing as delivered by Rangan Vaathiyar had been integrated better into the narrative instead of seeming like a bit of a lecture. I wish Vetri, Rangan Vaathiyar's son and played by Kalaiarasan, had had a more detailed arc. He does get one fantastic scene with his family, though; we see both where his angst is coming from and what it has reduced him to.
But otherwise, Sarpatta Parambarai is one hell of a watch and the performances are especially noteworthy: they range from solid to absolutely fantastic.
Arya has never made me tear up in a film before, but here in a scene where he says he's going to take up boxing again — with Santhosh Narayan's anthem-like theme in the background — I misted up. Dushara Vijayan is amazing as Kabilan's wife. Her character is a lovely, lusty and supportive woman who even gets a bit of an unexpected action scene. Anupama Kumar and Sanchana Natarajan are also very good.
But the film, finally, belongs to two people: John Vijay and Pasupathy. John Vijay is fantastic as an Anglo-Indian. He says things like 'ginger thinna korangu', and he doesn't make it sound like a cliche. It seems like the 'Anglo-Indianness' resides in him. He's a colorful character that has soul; it's a mind-blowing performance and easily his best. And Pasupathy aces it from the very first scene when we see him in the boxing arena watching someone lose — his eyes filling up with frustration and sadness — till the end; he completely owns the character. He's practically the protagonist of the film. Like Malik, I wish this film had been released on the big screen. It really deserves the canvas.