Sarpatta Parambarai Movie Review: Ranjith’s love letter to Ekalavya makes for compelling viewing

With this film, Ranjith continues to jab at Indian mythology, while throwing strong punches at anyone who doesn’t stand for equality

By now, surely, we have been trained enough to spot the Dalit politics-related imagery in Pa Ranjith’s films. We know to expect 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. An individual’s story of emancipation is the group’s. Kabilan (Arya) then 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.

Director: Pa Ranjith

Cast: Arya, Dushara Vijayan, Pasupathy, Anupama Kumar, Kalaiyarasan

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

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…” More than once, there’s the insinuation that Thanigai and co. are unable to digest that Kabilan and company walk among them as equals. During Kabilan’s initial boxing fight, note how Thanigai can’t even bear to look.

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. Even as a supporting character, it’s wonderful how you truly get a sense of what drives him and what hurts him, even if he doesn’t exactly verbalise them. Even a peripheral character like Koni Chandran (Kaali Venkat) gets established as a crafty presence who thrives on conflict, like a Saguni in a sense.

I particularly enjoyed the character of Dancing Rose (Shabeer Kallarakkal) and was entranced by his dancing antics 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 instead 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. What’s his relationship with his son, Vetriselvan? What are his weaknesses? What boxing expertise keeps him on top of his game as a manager? What made him such a terrific boxer? Nevertheless, all the supporting actors seem to have really bought into the film, and the rich universe is among my favourite aspects of Sarpatta Parambarai.

Equally admirable are the strong women, led from the front by Mariamma (Dushara Vijayan), Kabilan’s wife. It’s fascinating 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.

By now, it’s well-established that Ranjith’s next is a love story, and I’m delirious in excitement, as I consider the prospects, because in almost every film of his, he has shown evidence of being a tasteful writer of romance. In this film too, the Kabilan-Mariamma relationship is one between equals, and written with great sensitivity. Ranjith doesn’t make a big deal about the kisses, and 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 unquestioned solidarity. Here, she won’t put up with being a prop. 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.

Many of the important characters are also united by the idea of having to own up to their mistakes/failures. Watch Kabilan yell at Vembuli about this. And why, even Kabilan himself, at one point, has to accept his flaws before he can get better. Even those he loves, like his mother and Rangan vaathiyaar, show the humility needed to own up to lapses in judgment. This important idea results in character improvement across the table.

The film is set in the mid-70s, and we see a lot of bicycles, and brands like Limca and Roja paaku being shown as sponsors in the boxing arena. 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. It’s the familiar story of lost promise, forgotten dreams—one that I dare say all of us are familiar with. 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, perhaps to simplify resolution, and you don’t really get too much dialogue on technique or tactics either. The final showdown doesn’t exactly serve as a rewarding climactic battle either.

But Arya’s conviction helps. The actor has always been good in his good films, and here, it’s easy to buy him as a boxer. He looks the part, and I bought the various transformations his body is shown to go through. The actor’s presence is easily likeable, and the scenes with his mother and wife are perhaps my most favourite of his work in this film. He portrays easy vulnerability, and even when his character is being difficult, he seems likeable. It’s a rare quality for an actor.

There are many theatre moments in this film, and it’s a pity we won’t ever get the experience of seeing it on the big screen. I dare say that the boxing portions, including the cursory training montage, might have worked better in the theatre. One of my most favourite moments of this film 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 reference is how Kabilan himself seems modelled on Ekalavya, the Mahabharata character who was 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.

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.

With Sarpatta Parambarai, Ranjith continues to jab at Indian mythology, while throwing strong punches at anyone who doesn’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.

This review was written for Cinema Express, and was originally uploaded here.

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