Boxing, as a sport, has always been a sign of masculinity. Two men, sparring with each other using their fists, landing blows on the opponent while docking the punches, is a thrilling sight for the eyes of the lovers of the game. If one googles the term ‘Thrilla in Manila’, it would return stories about the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which ran 14 rounds before Frazier’s coach threw the towel in, perhaps to save both boxers from dying, as neither were ready to leave their corners, landing punches after punches on each other and taking an equal amount of blows in return. Watching ’Sarpatta Parambarai’ reminded me of this fight, which is regarded as the greatest boxing match of all time. Director Pa. Ranjith is known for his films that discuss caste-based oppression and discrimination. His latest film is no different. However, leaving the politics aside, this film is also a rousing sports drama that delivers a knock out punch. It’s that good! 

Set in the mid-seventies, the film is part history, part fiction. In the backdrop of emergency, Ranjith weaves a tale about the boxing culture between different clans in North Madras, as it was known then. The clash between the two clans, Sarpatta and Idipayan, to prove their superiority, their supremacy over the other clan brings them to the ring. Using boxing as an allegory, Ranjith again puts forward the struggle of the have-nots against the haves. He tells the story of Kabilan, a young boxing fanatic who aspires to be a boxer someday, under the tutelage of coach Rangan, one of the greats of the game, despite his mother’s disapproval. Kabilan rises to the occasion, earning the coach’s trust and ends up fighting Vembuli, a champion boxer belonging to the rival clan. As fate would’ve it, the match is interrupted by violence as Kabilan is about to win the battle. Coach Rangan gets arrested due to the impending emergency and Kabilan loses his way working in an illegal hooch business and becomes a henchman. How he gets back to his roots, to the game that he adored so much, forms the rest of the story.

Ranjith uses the emergency as an effective medium to express the anguish in common folks. There seems to be a political undercurrent between the clans as they believe in different ideologies and belittle their rivals, boasting their supremacy over them. It’s the hallowed square of the boxing ring that decides the best among the clans. The film’s timeline also features the historical event where DMK split into two factions, giving rise to AIADMK. It mirrors the events in the film, foretold by the coach Rangan, about his split from his brother and later, his son joining the rival political party. In a way, Ranjith drives home the point that differences, if not solved at the very beginning, eventually turn into huge obstacles. The caste-based discrimination also plays a huge role in the film, as the audience sees the dominant players in the caste resent the rise of a fellow boxer, albeit from the lower caste, so much so that they conspire to make him lose the bout. Set in the seventies, the film highlights the reservation against lower castes even more rigidly compared to contemporary times. 

While the political message is kept subtle, Ranjith puts the sports of boxing at the forefront. Amateur boxing in the seventies didn’t look like professional boxing bouts. Hence the boxing matches, look more like fisticuffs. However, the intensity of boxing duels matches every bit of the modern-day game. Kabilan is a beefed-up guy, who has the natural flair for boxing. His first opponent Dancing Rose, who fights with the skill of an acrobat and moves lightning-fast, gives him an epic scare, before Kabilan gets on top of him, with matching footwork. Even the champion boxer Vembuli, who is the designated boxer chosen to fight against Kabilan, is an ace boxer, who rules over the whole Madras region. The boxers look, walk and talk their parts. The camera makes the viewer feel as if they’re watching the match from the ringside. This makes the duels look highly absorbing and realistic. 

Arya shines as Kabilan, the underdog boxer who rises, falls and then again rises from the ashes, like a phoenix. Pasupathy plays the temperamental coach Rangan, arguably the best actor from the whole ensemble. John Vijay plays the Anglo-Indian ex-boxer Kevin aka Daddy, Kabilan’s mentor who makes him see his worth. Anupama Kumar plays Kabilan’s mother who despises Boxing and Dushara Vijayan plays Kabilan’s wife, a firebrand who loves her husband to death, despite his tantrums and fall from grace. From the opponent’s side, John Kokken as boxer Vembuli and Shabeer as the boxer Dancing Rose play their parts well, in fact their duels with Kabilan, features some of the memorable sequences of the film.

‘Sarpatta Parambarai’ is an absorbing sports drama that ticks off each box of entertainment. With every bout, the audience gets eager to witness the epic finale, which, when it arrives in the third act, does not disappoint at all and ends on a thrilling high, just like the Thrilla in Manila! 

‘Sarpatta Parambarai’ now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Run time of two hours and fifty-three minutes. Rated Universal. 

The Cinemawala Rating – 3/5

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