The boxing matches are superbly staged, but the film is much more than just about the sport.

A still from the film
Flix Review Thursday, July 22, 2021 - 07:22
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Sports films are now dime a dozen in Indian cinema, and you can doze through most of them and safely wake up when the mean opponent is sneering at the protagonist only to be defeated in the final game. However, Sarpatta Parambarai directed by Pa Ranjith who has co-written the film with Tamil Prabha, is like watching a live match ― it brings the heat of the sport, the excitement of each move, and most of all, the glorious unpredictability of sport.

Set in 1970s North Madras, at the time when Indira Gandhi announced the Emergency, Sarpatta revolves around boxing clans and the intense competition between them. Arya plays Kabilan, a worker at the harbour whose father was once a champion in the sport. But, his mother Bakkiyam (Anupama Kumar) will not have him go anywhere near the boxing ring because she believes it will lead him to a life of violence, much like his father. But Kabilan cannot stay away from the matches, his body moving in rhythm with the punches thrown in the ring as he looks on, entranced.

This is a tailormade role for Arya, and the first half of the film is a thrilling documentation of Kabilan's rise as a boxer. Pasupathy plays Rangan, the exacting coach of the Sarpatta Parambarai clan and a DMK man, while GM Sundar plays Durai Kannu, the coach of Idiyappa Parambarai, their main opponent. Durai Kannu's best fighter Vembuli (John Kokken) is yet to be defeated by any of the Sarpatta boxers and when a challenge is thrown into the air… well, you already know who will take it. But though the viewer can guess what's going to happen, there is not a moment when you lose interest in the journey. Murali G's camera makes you feel like you're a spectator at the ring, watching the nimble footwork of the boxers and feeling every punch in the gut.

A couple of days ago, Indian cricketer and CSK player Suresh Raina claimed that he was close to Chennai culture because he was 'also a Brahmin'. Though he was criticised for the comment, he'd inadvertently pointed to the truth. Cricket, the most celebrated sport in the country, has always been an upper caste game in Tamil Nadu (Suseenthiran's Jeeva is one of the rare sports films to discuss this). In North Madras, where the working classes and people from marginalised communities who built the city have lived for generations, sports such as football, kabaddi, boxing and martial arts are way more popular. The sports not only build a sense of community and pride, they also help instil discipline in the youth and get them seats in educational institutions and jobs.

Indeed, in Sarpatta, Kabilan's rise is resented not only by those in the opposite boxing clan, he has enemies within his own clan too — a dominant caste boxer and his family who cannot stomach his growth. The perceived humiliation is also due to Kabilan's aspirations to rise above his caste location.

Sarpatta weaves in the history of how boxing came to North Madras, and brings alive the vibrant culture of this part of the city, recreated to suit the '70s time period. John Vijay plays Kevin, known as 'Daddy', an Anglo Indian ex-boxer who is sort of a stand-in father for Kabilan. His dialect, mixed with English and Tamil, is spot on. Another interesting character who leaves a big impact is Dancing Rose. I was pretty sure that the role was played by a professional boxer, and it was only when I checked the credits that I realised it was played by actor Shabeer Kallarakkal. He moves with amazing grace and speed in the ring, making the superbly staged match (the background score adds to the tension) a treat to watch. Santhosh Prathap as Raman and John Kokken as Vembuli also have a solid presence, keeping the matches realistic and nail-biting (the commentary for the matches is equally entertaining, it must be said).

Watch: Trailer of 'Sarpatta Parambarai'

While the first half of the film is an absolute zinger, the mood shifts in the second half as Kabilan's journey hits a few bumps. Dushara Vijayan plays Mariamma, Kabilan's wife, who grows increasingly unhappy with the amount of time he's spending on the sport. Both Bakkiyam and Mariamma keep berating Kabilan, and this becomes repetitive after a point. Sanchana Natarajan as Vetri's (Kalaiyarasan) wife also has a similar role. I wish the women had more to do in the film than scold and lash out at the men in their lives, even if their influence cannot be denied. Kabilan's remorse, when it comes, seems too little too late ― and too easily forgiven.

Arya is in his element in the ring but isn't as convincing in the few emotional scenes that the film has. The clumsy attack on Kabilan towards the end also seems unnecessary and cinematic, out of sync with the realistic narration of the rest of the film. Kalaiyarasan does well as Rangan's conflicted son but his relationship with Kabilan somersaults too much rather than evolving organically. I did, however, enjoy the mandatory sports film 'training song' ('Neeye Oli') in Sarpatta; the one where a determined coach whips the athlete into top shape. Except, the coach here is quite different from what we're used to seeing in sports films, and the lines are evocative of Buddha's ideas on freedom ― a man is free not when he conquers a thousand others but when he conquers himself.

At 2 hours and 53 minutes, you'd expect to be fatigued by the time Sarpatta comes to a close, but that isn't the case at all. Ranjith elevates the final sequence to an exhilarating battle that represents more than just the game. As Kabilan strides to the ring wearing his blue robe and gloves, you root for his victory with all your heart because unlike most sports films, this isn't only about the individual or the team. Much like the metaphorical ending in Kaala (I still get goosebumps when I watch it), Sarpatta too ends with a bang. Or should I say knock-out punch?

The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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