In this column, I single out The Best, The Worst and The Most Unexpected across Indian film and television in the month gone by. Consider it a report card. This July, two movies wore boxing gloves, but only one of them scored.
Sarpatta Parambarai (Amazon Prime Video)
A Tamil film that strikes hardest after coaxing viewers to lower their guards, Pa Ranjith’s boxing epic is the impassioned tale of a young man growing up in the Black Town of Madras in the 1970s, besotted by the intricate boxing scene made up of warring clans. The clans cling to traditions of their own making — like gharaanas in classical music — and within them lie fault-lines of caste and background, and the film’s hero, Kabilan, has to feint and bob across these to earn a chance to don the gloves.
Played by Arya, Kabilan is the least alpha boxing hero I can remember, an instinctively good fighter who is timid and tentative outside the ring, a man who is not only physically thrashed by his mother and scolded vociferously by his wife, but — midway through the film — is brutally stripped of his clothes, left naked and crying in the ring.
Kabilan idolises local legend Coach Rangan of the Sarpatta Clan (played by a seething, magnetic Pasupathy) who offers philosophy — “Boxing is like a penance” — as well as performative insight: “Don’t just punch continuously,” he explains to his eager acolyte. “The audience can’t follow.” Ranjith, an intensely righteous filmmaker, listens to this, keeping Sarpatta Parambarai light on its feet while landing its blows. He invigorates hoary boxing tropes by creating supporting characters with outsized, compelling personalities.
The boxers Kabilan faces have distinctive styles. The unforgettably named Dancing Rose, played by Shabeer Kallarakkal — possibly modelled on flashy British grandstander Prince Naseem — is the film’s secret weapon, a spectacle inside the squared circle and an intriguing character outside it. Ranjith stuns us with Dancing Rose, enough to leave us all wanting more.
With the film set around The Emergency, the Coach, belonging to the DMK, is arrested by the central government. Kabilan, robbed abruptly of leader and purpose, descends into drink and ‘rowdyism.’ When Coach finally walks out of prison, he looks damningly at the hero’s growing belly before making eye contact.
Sarpatta Parambarai is a towering achievement, a rousing sports drama that makes emphatic statements, with scenes that intentionally and powerfully transcend the film’s setting. I can’t shake the sight of Coach Rangan — the only character treated with unalloyed reverence — rebelling against an authoritarian government, repeatedly declaring that the Prime Minister must resign. Now there’s a body blow.
Haseen Dillruba (Netflix)
I’m glad the makers of Haseen Dillruba created a fictional author of Hindi pulp fiction, a ‘Dinesh Pandit’ for its characters to quote and borrow from instead of besmirching the name of a real paperback maestro (like, say, Surender Mohan Pathak) with this half-baked film. Hindi pulp literature is exquisitely, irresistibly well plotted. Directed by Vinil Mathew, this is a murder mystery with only one suspect and a painfully silly twist, and the plotting is thoughtless.
A corpse is mauled beyond all recognition — police can’t tell whose body it is and whose arm lies next to it — yet investigators announce the victim died of a blow to the head. A man in a speeding car intentionally hits a man on a bike, only to have him turn, stare, then ride away. Actors Vikrant Massey and Taapsee Pannu create some authenticity and unpredictability, but their characters are written too inconsistently. The last frame of the film, where the camera dramatically pans to reveal something the audience has already been told, is shamefully tacky.
Haseen Dillruba isn’t lurid, it isn’t clever, it isn’t exciting. It’s the kind of thing that gives pulp a bad name.
Farhan Akhtar in Toofaan (Amazon Prime Video)
Early in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s tedious boxing film, Farhan Akhtar — playing Dongri fighter Aziz Ali — tells a doctor patching his face up that he got clobbered because he lacks technique. This could be said of this painfully long film trading almost exclusively in cliches about boxing and bigotry. As a street tough and a committed boxer, Akhtar certainly impresses, but he’s consistently punching above the film’s weight.
This film about surrogate motherhood is disappointingly childish. It is based on Marathi film Mala Aai Vhhyaychy, and, like Dhadak based on Sairat, makes a strong case for leaving good Marathi films alone. Laxman Utekar’s film introduces us to its dancing-girl heroine with a song likening her to a basket of oranges. Mimi inexpertly straddles comedy and commentary, yet allows Sanon — who was underrated in Bareilly Ki Barfi — a substantial showcase for her spontaneity and raw emotion, marking her out as an actress to watch.
Circling back to Sarpatta Parambarai, it’s one thing for a sports film to have iconic rivals and coaches, but I was blindsided by Pa Ranjith’s mighty female characters, especially Dushara Vijayan, who plays Kabilan’s wife, Mariyamma.
Not only does Mariyamma berate her husband for not spending time with her, she deftly side-steps the nagging-wife narrative by being the sharpest person around Kabilan. When he frets about pride and honour ahead of the climactic bout, she clears his head: “It’s a sport. If you lose, you lose.”
This evolving husband-wife dynamic is truly special, peaking in a swooningly romantic moment. Mariyamma demands intimacy, but she knows that, as coach Mickie said in Rocky, “women weaken legs.” Aware of the need for abstinence before a fight, she orders her husband to serve her food instead, and then feed her. Vijayan is dynamite in the scene, and Arya, a committed performer overshadowed by the film’s more vibrant and forceful characters, plays off her warmly.
“Yeah, go ahead,” says Kabilan, as Mariyamma eats too ravenously from his hands. “Swallow my fingers too.” It’s the tenderest, sexiest line in years.
Raja Sen is a critic, author and screenwriter, currently working on a film he isn’t allowed to talk about.