‘83’ is a good film but it still failed to attract audiences, perhaps because they have seen similar stories way too many times.

Arya in Sarpatta Parambarai and Ranveer Singh in 83
Flix Film commentary Saturday, January 15, 2022 - 13:24

Kabir Khan’s 83, despite earning Rs 100 crore, has been declared a flop because the film didn’t make back the money spent on it. Though the film received unanimously positive reviews and is based on the real-life inspirational story of how India won the cricket World Cup in 1983, it failed to excite the audience enough to sustain at the box-office. The dubbed version of the Telugu film Pushpa: The Rise, on the other hand, has emerged as the more popular film in the Hindi belt.

Several reasons have been attributed to 83’s lacklustre performance, from a lack of promotions in rural areas to the coronavirus pandemic. But perhaps the answer lies in the fact that there have been too many sports films coming out of Bollywood, with all of them following a predictable story arc. An underdog who fights the odds, goes up against a strong opponent and emerges victorious.

When Chak De! India came out in 2007, it became a blockbuster, winning critical acclaim and several awards. At the time, the fictional story of a women’s hockey team braving patriarchal structures to come out on top of the game was new and caught the imagination of the audience. Subsequent sports-based films like Mary KomBhaag Milkha BhaagDangal, Mukkabaz, MS Dhoni and others also did moderate to great business at the box-office. But more recent offerings like Panga, Rashmi Rocket, Saina and 83 have received a lukewarm response from viewers. These films had well-known stars in the cast but still couldn’t ensure a sustained good run or word of mouth. Does the fault lie with the repetitive genre or how these stories are being written and told?

The popularity of Pa Ranjith’s boxing film Sarpatta Parambarai offers a clue. Since Sarpatta released directly on OTT (Amazon Prime Video), it’s not possible to draw box-office comparisons. However, it was among the most watched films on Amazon Prime Video, and according to data put out by the streaming platform, viewers from over 3,200 towns and cities in India and in over 150 countries and territories globally watched the film. In comparison, Toofan (also based on boxing)which came out on Amazon Prime Video a week earlier, was watched in over 3,900 towns and cities, and in over 160 countries and territories globally. However, it is to be noted that the audience for Tamil films is considerably smaller than Hindi films. Moreover, Sarpatta also featured in the ‘2021 highest rated international films’ list on Letterboxd, an Auckland-based social platform for film lovers across the globe, showing that its appeal wasn’t limited to Tamil speakers.

To be fair, 83 is a good film. It has great performances, an entertaining script, and offers high nostalgic value for someone who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s (like me). But to get the audience excited about a film, there has to be more. This is where Sarpatta stands tall. The film, set in the ‘70s, is based on the boxing clans of North Madras and draws several inspirations from real-life stories. It could have simply been about an underprivileged boxer and his surprising rise to the top, but it is much more than that.

Sociopolitical context

83 is largely focused on the Indian cricket team that won the World Cup, and the characters are defined in broad strokes. The captain is focused on lifting the cup while the rest don’t share his belief as strongly. We know a few personal details about them; the newly married Cheeka is a vegetarian dying to eat dosa (he also makes an unnecessary remark about ‘quota’ that isn’t countered); Jimmy is deeply attached to his father and wants to make him proud; Sandhu is engaged to be married; Sunny is the classy guy in the team, and so on.

All these details lend the characters personality but there is very little sociopolitical context about how they ended up in the team and the dynamics within it. If you like the real-life people on whom these characters are based, you will like the film. But for a viewer below 30, there is nothing unique that sticks. Sarpatta, in contrast, builds Kabilan’s (the Dalit boxer played by Arya) journey step by step. His personality is a product of his sociocultural context, as is true for all of us.

Despite featuring people from different social backgrounds, 83 is content to tell the story with an always-genial tone; the only time there is a hint of conflict or unpleasantness is when the camera shows a communal riot (and that too is resolved because of cricket). In reality, Indian sports is located in the same ugly bedrock of caste, class and patriarchy that is intrinsic to our society. But Indian sports films, especially when they’re based on real-life personalities, have almost always steered clear of such “problematic” areas (Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaz and Suseenthiran’s Jeeva are among the rare films to have talked about caste within this genre). The enemy is clearly defined as the opponent team and the viewer just has to sit through the rest of the proceedings before we arrive at the grand finale.

Sarpatta, however, talks about the politics within the ring and outside of it. Kabilan cannot win unless he overcomes the various obstacles in his way, some of them generational. Weaving Ambedkarite politics and Buddhist philosophy into the story, Pa Ranjith elevates Kabilan’s story to a much more complex and layered cinematic experience that leaves you thinking long after the credits have rolled. With memorable characters like Rangan Vathiyar (Pasupathy, who became a popular meme), Daddy (John Vijay) and Dancing Rose (Shabeer Kallarakka), the film goes beyond Kabillan, the hero, and also gives us a sense of the community where all the drama is unfolding.

Both 83 and Sarpatta are located in the past, and interestingly, Indira Gandhi finds a mention in both as the Indian Prime Minister. In 83, she’s the smart PM who uses the World Cup to spread the message of communal harmony. But this strategy hardly gets a few minutes of screen time and is only used to show that cricket unites everyone, bordering on the cute. Sarpatta, set in the ‘70s, shows how the lives of the people are upended because of the Emergency, and the political ramifications of it on the sport. It makes it part of the film’s fabric rather than highlighting it to underscore a point and move hurriedly past.

Again, 83 isn’t a bad film at all. But for viewers who have seen one too many of the same story, it is a big ask to go to theatres in these risky times, pay the steep price ticket and sit through the same-same underdog story, even if it is well-made. Sarpatta isn’t just a sports film, any more than a sportsperson is only a sportsperson. It is this complexity that the genre should capture if filmmakers want viewers to stay hooked.

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