'Sarpatta Parambarai' co-writer and novelist Tamil Prabha speaks about the challenges of screenplay writing, the need for complexity of characters in cinema, the North Madras dialect, the women of 'Sarpatta' and more in this wide-ranging interview.

Pa Ranjith and writer Tamil Prabha on sets of Sarpatta Parambarai
Flix Interview Thursday, July 29, 2021 - 12:52

Director Pa Ranjith’s fifth film, Sarpatta Parambarai, released directly on Amazon Prime Video on July 22. The film set in the mid-1970s of North Madras, revolves around the lives and trials of two competing boxing clans—Sarpatta and Iddiyappa—and follows the story of Kabilan (Arya) as he fights not just his rivals but also the bitter nexus of caste, class and personal crises. A week into the release, Sarpatta has been received with widely positive reviews. TNM spoke to the co-writer of the film and author of the Tamil novel Pettai, Tamil Prabha.

 Was it a different experience to move to script-writing from being a novelist?

It was different, certainly. I didn’t pressure myself about the fact that I had to write in screenplay format and neither did Ranjith want me to. Being a novelist helped in writing the layered characters that are in the film. One challenge was to figure out how to bring out the inner emotions of a character. In a novel, I can describe it. But I had to think of how to convey that with visual cues instead. Another challenge was to give a lead for each of these characters, which means to establish clearly what their journey throughout the story is going to be like. It doesn’t feel that necessary to do while writing a novel, but I feel being clear about the character’s individual journeys is essential for a film.

Can you tell us about the process of co-writing a script? You and director Ranjith may have your own writing processes, especially since you’re a novelist, how did you both make it work?

Ranjith first told me the basic storyline and gave me a draft he’d written to read. He asked me to write something based on what he’d given, which I enlarged into a novel. He liked what I wrote, took out the necessary portions and expanded that into a new draft. Then I wrote another draft based on his. It went back and forth like that. Sometimes, he’d ask me to rework select portions. Finally, we started slowly changing it into a screenplay. So, our discussion was mainly through our writing, until he finalised the script. Of course, we’d also have to talk about why the other had removed some element from the script, why something in the story didn’t work for one of us.

You mentioned individual journeys of each character. One of the very striking elements about Sarpatta Parambarai is how each person on screen is layered and fleshed out. It’s rather rare in mainstream cinema where secondary characters are mostly reduced to mere cut-outs. What made you consciously avoid falling into that trap?

We were very clear from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be only a hero-centric film. We didn’t want the audience to empathise only with the hero, but also with those characters who are emotionally affected by the hero. Whether it’s Daddy or Rose, they have their personal emotions as well. The story demanded this. To be honest, initially so many characters with their own little stories happened quite organically. It just fell in place like that. As we developed the script, we realised that we had to consciously develop their characters too, to do justice to the story.

It would have been necessary to make sure that the actors too understand this about their roles. How did you explain the layers of each of their characters to them and the importance of bringing it out?

Ranjith took care of that mainly. I was there during the shooting to help him explain the characters. I also did tell them that each of their roles is unique, so they’d have to be aware of that while performing. Otherwise, they’d just come and go in the film without having an impact. Look at Dancing Rose, he has probably all of fifteen minutes of screen time, but he leaves a mark. It was also the actors’ efforts that made this happen as much as it was about the visual cues we put in or the screenplay.

 This complexity particularly stood out for me in Thaniga, Raman, Vetri, Dancing Rose and Vembuli. Apart from Thaniga, it’s hard to call any of them the villains, though they have their negative shades. Their arcs give hope to the audience in their own ways. What do you think?

We didn’t really imagine any of the characters as villains here, they’re each determined by their circumstances. Thaniga perhaps, to an extent you can call a villain. He only cares about pride, not sports. I wouldn’t call Raman or Vetri villains. They have their own arc, Raman’s angst comes from an outsider suddenly coming out of nowhere, his problem is as a sportsman mainly, but his uncle also misleads him and keeps cornering him into behaving a certain way. As a sportsman, Raman gets that no one can argue the skill that Kabilan brought to the fight when he finally defeats Vembuli. Like you said, it gives the audience hope that the next generation can be better. If he’d walked away, he’d have been just like his uncle. Vetri is a product of successionism, he can’t accept being displaced by an outsider. But at the end, both of them are able to go and stand with Kabilan on the stage.

Vembuli just has a tiny shop in the marketplace. He’s only an important person in the ring, where he’s undefeated, he looms over everyone else. So, he feels forced to retain that position at all costs, that’s what drives him to cheat. But he too redeems himself.

In the end, whether it’s Dancing Rose or Vetri or Raman or Vembuli, you won’t hate any of them.

What was the research method of correctly identifying and reproducing the North Madras dialect of the seventies? There could be a great deal of difference between how the dialect is spoken now and then. For example, Ranjith had mentioned in an interview that hardly any English words were used then. In the film too there are just a few boxing technical terms and Daddy's Anglo Indian dialect.

Actually, even today in my area, people speak a Tamil with very little English influence. Globalisation hasn’t taken too much of a hold here. We had many boxers from that period coming in to share their experiences in the pre-shoot workshops, so they were a great source. Then, that period was still deeply entwined with Tamil linguistic assertion and pride. Also, it’s really all our lifestyles or work that brings in another language. Today we use English words like “charger”, “phone” etc. There are so many material comforts in all our lives now. Those were far more limited back then. Even in the film, Rangan Vaathiyaar says “kaal paadam” for “footwork”. Now we’re used to words like “email”, “links” because of the nature of our work, that’s all. Similarly, they also used a few terms like “gloves” or “sparring” or “ring”.  The dialect just mirrors their lives in those times, like it does in our times.

Some aspects of the dialect from then that I really liked were their choice of words. They didn’t ask what the “time” was, they’d use the Tamil term “neram”. Or use words like “vaasthuvam”. Instead of “va da”, “po da”, they’d use “va pa”, “po pa”. All this was very interesting for me.

The easy way to make a period film would have been to limit yourselves to recreating the time with only the sets, hairstyles and costumes, but Sarpatta Parambarai also reconstructs the political history of the mid-1970s. Why was that important?

This story could have been set in the 1930s or in the '60s or even later in the '90s. But we’ve chosen the 1970s, in which case we need to offer a clear image of those times. Audio-visually we can show it through the film songs playing in the background, or by showing how clothes people wore were a bit different from the later flamboyance of the '80s. We can add another layer politically too, through the graffiti on the walls or through people’s ideologies. These layers are necessary for story-telling, in our view, so we ensured that they were put in. Doing this is what made Sarpatta Parambarai bigger than just another boxing film.

There has been some criticism that the female characters are all tied to the men in the film and don’t have individuality. Would you like to respond to that?

If as a wife, the woman is giving a male character a hand up, I see her as being a partner. It doesn’t mean that we’re just using that old phrase “behind every successful man, there’s a woman”. We’re talking about their lives. What are these women in their families? Bakkiyam is a single mother. In the flashback, we see how young Kabilan was when his father was murdered. She raises him, does everything for their survival. She does it alone by working in Daddy’s home. When she sees that he’s going down a path that she’s afraid of, she even beats a grown man, refuses to speak to him. She only relents when Kabilan himself accepts that he had been in the wrong. The way I see it, in any close relationship, if a person is going astray, the other has the responsibility to point that out to them.

Whether it’s Vetri’s wife or Mariamma, they speak their minds. They aren’t coy like in so many old Tamil films. And they’re certainly not subservient to their husbands. All of this is clear from the language they use to interact with them.

Sarpatta Parambarai starring Arya, Dushera Vijayan, Pasupathy and others is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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