By now, surely, we have been trained enough to spot the Dalit politics-related imagery in Pa Ranjith’s films: the Ambedkar photographs, the Buddha figures, the beef references… It’s all there in Sarpatta Parambarai too, but the fight in this film isn’t one of clamour and large-scale gathering. This time, it’s personal—and as an extension, social. When you are from a trampled community, your win is the community’s. Kabilan (Arya) is a symbol, a ray of hope for people who are and were told to belong in their place. It’s why when Kabilan punches his hands up in jubilation, so do strangers who root for him; his personal challenges may be his own, but the social challenges—of discrimination, of robbed opportunities, of withheld recognition—belong to everyone in his community.
Quite a few of the markers of oppression, of humiliation, are here in this film too. The intent to shame by stripping. The refusal to treat them as respectable people. In referring to Kabilan, Thanigai (Vettai Muthu Kumar), says, “Idhu…” Thanigai is one of many, many characters this three-hour film is able to provide ample shading to. Particularly notable among them is Kevin/Daddy (a terrific John Vijay), who brings in humour at all the right places and when required, is able to draw from a reservoir of trauma too. I enjoyed the complexity of Vetriselvan (Kalaiarasan) too, who, throughout this film, toys with your feelings towards him. I was entranced by the antics of Dancing Rose (Shabeer Kallarakkal) inside the boxing ring. It’s a mark of the film’s writing (Pa Ranjith and novelist Tamil Prabha) that even this character isn’t treated as dispensable side-quest fodder and gets a chance at redemption. If I had a complaint at all, it would be that as good an actor as Pasupathy is (playing Rangan vaathiyaar), I wish we had learned more about him, given that the guru-shishya relationship is at the heart of this film. Nevertheless, the supporting actors seem to have really bought into the film, and the rich universe is among my favourite aspects of Sarpatta Parambarai.
The strong women are led from the front by Mariamma (Dushara Vijayan), Kabilan’s wife. It’s terrific how Ranjith makes sure that though Mariamma and Kabilan’s mother are largely dependent on him for their survival, this dependency never really gets presented as weakness. Kabilan, for his part, is redeemed in our eyes by his largely respectful attitude towards these women.
The Kabilan-Mariamma relationship is one between equals and written with great sensitivity. Ranjith makes sure that Mariamma’s feistiness is intact, even in her, and especially in her sadness. Perhaps my most favourite scene of the couple is when she lets out a flurry of abuses at Kabilan for neglecting her in pursuit of his boxing goals. This is an important reinterpretation of the ‘supportive wife’ trope in such films, where the woman typically offers limitless solidarity. Even during her first night scene, it’s Kabilan who’s lying on the bed, while Mariamma comes in dancing as an equal partner. Kabilan’s mother, Bakkiyam, meanwhile, is carrying trauma baggage, and weaponises her silence effectively. It’s lovely that Kabilan needs to win the respect and affection of women at home before he can go out there and conquer the world.
The film is set in the mid-70s, and naturally, we get references to the Emergency, and the DMK government, and there’s even a mention of Stalin’s arrest under MISA. The film briefly touches upon the Tamil resistance to what’s perceived to be central dictatorship. Sarpatta Parambarai is set in North Chennai, and it largely seems to happen in and around the Washermanpet neighbourhood. Agastya Theatre nearby—which recently shut down—in Tondiarpet, gets some coverage. We also get fleeting shots of Parry’s Building, Napier Bridge, Ripon Building… However, the film isn’t obsessed with these homages. It largely tries to tell its story without distractions and relies on dialogues and costumes to establish its period.
Sarpatta Parambarai works also as a personal story, even if Kabilan’s descent and eventual ascent seem to happen rather swiftly. Such a steep fall is par for the course in boxing films, but the issue of alcohol addiction and rowdyism is particularly relevant in the boxing culture of North Chennai that this film looks to document. It’s a film that speaks about the value of duty too and has much respect for it. Notice how Kabilan’s resurrection happens by the sea, under the watchful gaze of a fisherman who’s going about his everyday duty. The relevance of setting and the utility of such messaging is wonderfully on point.
For such reasons, I didn’t really see Sarpatta Parambarai as being a sports film, though much of its action occurs in and around the boxing ring. Had this been a film of that genre, I might have been a bit more scathing of the lack of sporting highs, of the lack of any deep tactical nous in its many matches—except perhaps the Dancing Rose match. Pretty much every boxing match ends with a knockout, and you don’t really get too much dialogue on technique or tactics either. The final showdown isn’t exactly a rewarding climactic battle either.
But Arya’s conviction helps. The actor has always been good in his good films, and here, he’s particularly good, with scenes with his mother and wife being perhaps my most favourite of his work here. He portrays easy vulnerability, and even when his character is being difficult, he seems likeable. It’s a rare quality for an actor.
Santhosh’s Neeye Oli is a real force through this film. What a moment when it kicks in for the first time and Kabilan slaps on his gloves. Or how about when the whole track plays to Kabilan’s training, and of many lovely shots, you see once again that fantastic one from the trailer: the one where the sea almost parts to show you Kabilan in almost neck-high water, practising his punches… It’s the sort of visual imagery theatres are made for.
Another great moment is when Santhosh Narayanan’s beat kicks in to match the agility of Kabilan’s feet in the boxing ring, in his first match against Raman. You will note, of course, the latter’s name and how it’s given to a not-so-likeable character. The bigger mythological connection is how Kabilan himself seems modelled on Ekalavya, the Mahabharata character shunned by ace archer Drona for belonging to a lower caste. Kabilan is Ranjith’s Ekalavya, and this time, he meets a fairer guru in Pasupathy’s Rangan vaathiyaar who puts merit above caste.
With Sarpatta Parambarai, Ranjith continues to jab at Indian mythology, while throwing knockout punches at those who don’t stand for equality. This time, he does this through a more personal story, and with this film, he looks to have begun the next step of his filmography—which is to normalise telling a variety of stories featuring heroes from oppressed communities. Stories about upliftment don’t always need to be loud and angry. Sometimes, all it takes is for a man, like in Sarpatta Parambarai, to look at one of his own and say, “Idhu namma kaalam. Ezhundhu vaa!” Sarpatta may not be his best work yet; it may not exactly thrill as a sports film; but Ranjith’s film is yet again compelling, and it’s yet again important
Director: Pa Ranjith
Cast: Arya, Dushara Vijayan, Pasupathy, Anupama Kumar, Kalaiyarasan
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video