Boxing movies have always been one of cinema’s heavyweight genres. Because the sport is inherently cinematic. Its primal instincts and dramatic tension resonate universally. Even if the codes of the genre have become standardised over time, they have still proven to be durable. Pa. Ranjith adds to the long-cherished tradition with Sarpatta Parambarai, set to premiere on Amazon Prime Video on 22 July.
Ranjith’s boxing opus throws some forceful punches to the classic underdog story. Only, the end result doesn’t pack much of a wallop.
Arya straps on the gloves to play an ambitious young boxer born on the wrong side of the tracks. Pasupathy is his reluctant coach. Dushara is the supportive wife. In fact, women mostly exist on the sidelines, expressing their disapproval or support. Arya’s pugilistic protagonist goes through peaks and valleys before eventual redemption. There are training montages set to uplifting music. All this inevitably builds to a climactic duel of premium ‘70s sideburns, with their owners trying to knock each other’s teeth off in the final round. Both take a proper beating, but it is the inescapable class structure which packs the meanest punch. Ranjith imbues his own directorial voice to what is a typical against-the-odds slugfest.
No sports movie is just about the sport itself. The sport is merely a setting to ground an allegory in service of its protagonist’s journey of ups and downs.
The boxers in Sarpatta Parambarai become proxies for working-class frustrations during Emergency, as DMK’s Tamil Nadu strive for greater autonomy.
Boxing as a sport tends to attract folks from the margins: the poor, the immigrants, and the minority communities. Ranjith prods more at class than caste divisions here. Because these boxers are all broken and bruised working-class men who see the ropy confines of the ring as their only chance for glory and upward mobility.
In his previous films Kaala and Kabali, Ranjith transported us to Mumbai and Malaysia (respectively). Now, we’re back in the familiar terrain of North Madras. And like his second film Madras, two warring factions are keen to establish their supremacy in the region. There, the conflict centred around a wall. Here, it centres around a boxing legacy with colonial roots. As Pasupathy’s coach Rangan notes, the boxing subculture in North Madras split into many clans post-independence. Chief among them are the Sarpatta and Idiyappa Parambarai.
Boxers from the Sarpatta Parambarai enjoyed a long reign until the Idiyappan champion Vembuli (John Kokken) put an end to it, defeating every student trained by Ranjan. With their legacy at stake, Ranjan pins all his hopes on untested rookie Kabilan (Arya). His rise is punctuated by a comical interlude of sorts. Shabeer Kallarakkal, who plays his first challenger, truly lives up to the name Dancing Rose with his fancy footwork and outrageous mannerisms. He sure “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee” — in one of Ranjith’s more direct homages to Muhammad Ali. If Ranjith decides to make a movie on Dancing Rose, that’s a movie well worth watching.
Just when you think Ranjith is going for the jugular, the film is trapped in its own punishing spiral half-way as Kabilan finds himself in a freefall of anguish and alcoholism.
The dark underbelly has always existed side by side with boxing subculture. Kabilan too walks the tightrope of law, and stumbles into the wrong side — much to his mother and pregnant wife’s dismay. But this detour takes away the focus from the centrepiece duel, even making the whole ending anticlimactic.
Besides his rivals, Kabilan must face off against a variety of lightweight and heavyweight obstacles. Ranjan choosing Kabilan over seasoned students Raman (Santhosh Prathap) and his own son Vetriselvan (Kalaiyarasan) leads to infighting within the clan. Kabilan’s father too was a boxer before he became an alcoholic thug and got shanked by rivals. His mother worries about history repeating itself. Hunched under the weight of duty, legacy and history, Kabilan must soak up every punch and put-down to prove he is the real deal. Arya sure has the hulking frame of a boxer. But we don’t get a clear sense of the man beneath the muscles, as he can’t quite capture the interiority of his character.
Gloves on, the film scores enough points to keep you watching through its slo-mo punches with mouths agape. Gloves off, it struggles, often resorting to an endless barrage of pugilistic cheers and trash talk. Indeed, trading barbs make up most of the dialogue. “Ni puli illai da, muuku shali” will raise a chuckle. Even if it is a boxing movie where machoism is driven to extremes, you can only take so much of it before it gets exhausting.
Instead of using his gifted ensemble to spotlight Kabilan’s story as the face of Tamil Nadu’s working class amid rising political tensions, Ranjith fills the time between the matches with shouting matches and worse: melodrama. The film punches well below its weight. Sarpatta Parambarai isn’t a black eye for boxing movies. But it’s no knockout either.
Our rating: 2 Quints out of 5
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