"Idho vandhuvittaar Vada Chennai idhayakkani Manja Kannan," (here's comes the fruit of Vada Chennai's heart, Manja Kannan) announces the sports commentator in a performatively enthusiastic tone. Manja Kannan is a fan of actor and former Tamil Nadu chief minister MGR. He dresses, walks and talks like him; he's also a member of the latter's political party. He is such a huge fan that he tried to shoot himself in the neck when his hero lost his voice to a bullet. Manja Kannan is one of the tens of colourful characters that Pa Ranjith populates his latest film Sarpatta Parambarai with.
Despite much of the film being set in the boxing ring, Sarpatta Parambarai is not an ordinary sports film; nor is it a single man's journey to success. It is a layered drama about a time, place and people that is intricately intertwined with boxing, simply set to the rhythms of the sports film genre. In Pa Ranjith's masterful writing, Sarpatta Parambarai is the story of Karuppar Nagaram told through a pugilistic lens.
This is why we hardly ever see Kabilan, the protagonist, practice on his own burning the midnight oil or ponderingly walking down the beach. His journey is not his alone. It is the journey of everyone else in his community " the Anglo-Indian Daddy and his wife Missiyamma, the perpetually worried coach Rangan, his conflicted family, a dancing boxer called Rose, Kabilan's high-pitched mother, his realist-romantic wife, the drunk who offers boxing advice.
Hundreds of people invest in the sport, for many of whom it offers purpose and an identity. At one point, Kabilan screams, "Naan yaaru than?" (Who the hell am I?) " the last straw being the disapproval of his respected coach. It's not just Kabilan, though. For Vetri, coach Rangan's son, being snatched of what he thinks of as his right to compete, breaks him entirely. For Raman, it's a matter of the family's pride and legacy. For Koni Chandran, it's about making money.
To know what boxing does for Karuppar Nagaram, one need only to look at how Kabilan's late father's character is written. In fact, he has only one scene in the film. We meet him only through the memories of the people around him. His wife remembers him, with anger, as a rowdy, whose path her son must never follow. His friend, Daddy, recollects with melancholic pride that he was someone who 'ruled over Madras'. His teammate, Rangan, thinks of him, almost pityingly, as someone who got arrogant, lost his way, and got himself killed. We know that all of this is true.
Ranjith's biggest success is in bringing the sense of community into every frame of the film. We never see boxing as Kabilan's pursuit, it is always the community's treasure. The body language is everywhere, like the little wave of the left shoulder that Vetri, played by Kalaiyarasan, makes every time he takes an aggressive posture. The makeup and styling of every character is grounded " even Rangan's wig in the flashback doesn't seem misfit. The period setup stands real. The electoral politics of the time inform and shape the events naturally.
Ranjith and Tamizh Prabha " who is credited for dialogues and screenplay " weave class and caste seamlessly into the fabric of the film. Between layers of 'parambarai' (clan) rivalry, there are subtle references to characters' caste position and the dynamics of it. The insults and oppression might appear to be over-shadowed by the parambarai pride, but if you look closely, it's clear that the idea of the clan itself is a combination of social, culture and political factors. In ways that only Ranjith can, he elevates what could have become a tropey sports film into a cultural extravaganza.
The little gems of romance in Sarpatta Parambarai deserve a special mention. Whether it's Kabilan's wife Mariamma demanding attention or Rangan's wife lovingly squeezing his feet when he returns from prison, Ranjith makes companionship an integral part of the story, without exaggerating the romance. In fact, the magical turn of 'Vambula Thumbula' from a celebratory song to a sexy number is one of the best moments in the film.
Murali G upholds the film with this patient cinematography, rarely ever being intrusive in an effort to escalate tension. The shot of him boxing an oncoming wave is one for history. Selva RK is not very frugal with the editing either. The fight sequence between Dancing Rose - Shabeer Kallarakkal in top form " is a superlative combination of dance and stunt choreography!
The only weakness is perhaps Arya. Make no mistake, he looks the part, is believable as a boxer, has got some mean moves. But in the emotional scenes, he goes dangerously close to turning comical. Without an actor who can give the audience a lump in their throat, the film's high-points plateau.
The unrelentingly loud first half becomes exhausting after a point. Everyone always on the edge. Much of the visual tension comes from too many people occupying the frame and screaming their argument at each other. In fact, this makes the silent moments feel especially scarce. As a corollary, the conflict doesn't escalate to the climax either, making the predictable ending less impactful than it could have been.
Despite the niggles, Sarpatta Parambarai is a rooted film. Both in writing and direction, Ranjith is in complete control. He straddles his role as a storyteller and an anthropologist with precision. This film certainly packs a punch.
Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
Sarpatta Parambarai is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.