While the relationship between the guru Rangan Vaathiyaar (Pasupathi) and Kabilan (Arya) is very orthodox, where it breaks the Brahminical mould is how Ranjith retells the story.

Film Director Pa Ranjith
Flix Opinion Tuesday, July 27, 2021 - 17:14

Two sports drama films – based on almost the same premise and the same sport of boxing – were released on OTT platform Amazon Prime Video recently, thus making this comparison inevitable. While one is the Hindi film Toofan, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, the other one is the Tamil film Sarpatta Parambarai, made by Pa Ranjith. The simple storyline of both the stories is how the protagonist, a boxer, loses form and dramatically achieves success through perseverance and sheer struggle. But the key and obvious difference is the perspectives they are told from.

While Toofan is told from a Brahminicial viewpoint, re-perpetuating the casteist orthodox ideas of the guru-shishya relationship that Dronacharya from the mythological story of Mahabharata espoused, the other one seemingly tells the story from Ekalavya’s perspective. This is the subtext. In the Mahabharata, Ekalavya is an able warrior from a tribal clan. However, he is denied the opportunity to learn archery under the tutelage of Dronacharya owing to his caste status. Nevertheless, determined to be the best warrior, Ekalavya practises archery in secret by sneakily learning the lessons taught by Dronacharya to the Pandavas and Kauravas, who are of the Kshatriya caste.

Toofan, starring Farhan Akthar and Mrunal Thakur, is the story of how Muslim orphan Aziz (Farhan Akthar), growing up in a ghetto indulging in street brawls, manages to find a path to boxing at the clichéd insistence of the female lead, who has taken it upon herself to ‘reform’ him. In this process of ‘reformation’, Aziz, once a proud man, keeps losing every ounce of his dignity. The boxing coach is Nana Prabhu (Paresh Rawal), a Brahmin and a Hindu bigot (goes without saying that he is an Islamophobe too), who firmly believes in the Islamophobic conspiracies of ‘love jihad’. As the name Prabhu suggests, he is a god in the boxing spectrum and a supposed legend in the game.

Nana Prabhu makes deeply offensive casteist and Islamophobic remarks against Aziz when he approaches him to be trained, but Aziz doesn’t protest even in a mild manner. Initially, Nana Prabhu refuses to train Aziz merely because of his Muslim identity and his social location. But noticing Aziz’s subservience and the ‘respect’ he gives him, eventually Prabhu takes him under his wing. This is where the story of Toofan deviates slightly from the mythological story. And in this context, Aziz is Ekalavya. While Ekalavya makes the sacrifice of severing his thumb because of his deception of Dronacharya, Aziz makes the sacrifice of losing his boxing career and his beloved wife in a tragic incident.

The premise of Sarpatta Parambarai, too, is the same. Kabilan (Arya), a Dalit, is denied formal training due to certain circumstances. And like Ekalavya, he practises boxing sneakily without the knowledge of his mother and his guru, Rangan Vaathiyaar (Pasupathi). There’s a scene in the beginning when Arya is called a ‘bathroom boxer’ – a clear implication that he has been practising his boxing skills in secret. While the relationship between Rangan Vaathiyaar and Kabilan is very orthodox, where it breaks the Brahminical mould is how Ranjith retells the story.

When Rangan writes him off and disowns him, Kabilan finds a path on his own. Ranjith, who is an anti-caste director, uses the Buddhist philosophy of attaining self-enlightenment rejecting the Brahminical ideas and notions of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘subservience’. The song ‘Neeye Oli... Nee thaan Vali’ (You are the light, you are the path) playing in the background makes Ranjith’s intention clear. Further, in an interview with TNM, the director had said that he was “very particular about bringing Buddha’s philosophy into the song”.

Emphasising the need for Buddha’s philosophy as vital and “very essential” in these times and explaining the reason behind the song, Ranjith said, “When Buddha first attained enlightenment, the first thing he learnt was that he himself was the light. The simple philosophy behind it is: It is important for a person to attain self-awareness; and understand that liberty is within himself, which he should himself understand and break away from his oppression.”

Kabilan is also shown as very assertive and unapologetic, unlike Aziz. When the upper caste Thaniga (Muthu Kumar) insults Kabilan based on his caste, the latter reacts to it violently. Also, Ranjith, who doesn’t shy away from talking about caste, shows how Kabilan has to struggle to even get a fair chance to get into the boxing ring.

Toofan is the product of a Savarna filmmaker that tries to police a Muslim and ‘reform’ him. Also, there are no consequences to the Hindu bigot Nana Prabhu, and outrageously he is also given a justification for his hatred for Muslims. The Muslim man should bear the cross of being a ‘liberal’ as he is supposed to chant ‘Jai Hanuman’ without any protest.

It is also interesting how the Savarna filmmaker uses boxing legend Muhammad Ali as a mere property in the film, and how a politically and caste-conscious director like Ranjith uses Muhammad Ali. “This film is a tribute to Muhammad Ali,” Ranjith had declared in the interview to TNM.

A caste-based society like India needs many more Ranjiths to bring about radical change and not Rakeyshs who maintain the status quo.

(Views are authors' own)
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