One year ago, Tamil director Pa. Ranjith released Sarpatta Parambarai to critical and commercial acclaim. The sports film stars Arya in the lead role, and Santhosh Narayanan providing a heavy, powerful score. Sarpatta Parambarai tells us stories of 1970’s North Madras and the boxing craze that infected its inhabitants. There have been countless boxing movies, and broadly sports movies, in Tamil and Indian cinema. However, Pa. Ranjith uses the commercial appeal of a mass-y sports drama in order to portray Dalit and lower-class stories of Madras, complete with the anti-caste and social justice elements his films are known for.
The film’s title, Sarpatta Parambarai, is the name of one of the premier boxing ‘clans’ of North Madras in the 1970’s. Kabilan (Arya), a Dalit port laborer with an obsession with boxing, is one member of this clan. However, his mother doesn’t allow him to box, as his skilled boxer father was killed by rival boxers due to the combination of his success and his caste status. The film chronicles Kabilan’s rise, fall, and rise back to the top, facing many challenges along the way. The general narrative of the film isn’t unique, and is rather typical of most sports and boxing movies, such as Rocky (1976) or Ali (2001). However, the politics of the film make it unique in India, and those politics start with the visual and sensory experiences from the beginning of the film.
The introduction of the film starts with parai drums, strong throughout the film. The predominantly Dalit folk art of parai is important in the city’s soundscape, and musical director Santhosh Narayanan expertly creates the sonic experiences taking us back to 70’s North Madras with a blend of Madras folk music and brass instruments. Visually, the viewer’s gaze of the protagonist that Pa. Ranjith creates is unorthodox in Tamil commercial filmmaking. Usually, our heroes are larger than life, occupying most of the screen. However, the cinematographer Murali G. zooms out our view more than usual, encompassing more than just Kabilan. Given the dense urban area that Madras is, this ends up surrounding Kabilan with the people he interacts with, consistent with Pa. Ranjith’s tendency towards community focused narratives. The importance of community is not just visual – rather than revolving around one hero, the film’s charm is due to the eccentric and quirky side and supporting characters. These include the Anglo-Indian “Daddy” (John Vijay), Kabilan’s mother Bakkiyam (Anupama Kumar), politician Manjaa Kannan (Maran), and the flashy rival boxer Dancing Rose (Shabeer Kallarakkal). Aside from these, there are plenty more characters, named and unnamed, that work effectively to create a vibrant community for the viewer in the three-hour runtime of the film.
SarpattaParambarai isn’t as explicitly political as Pa. Ranjith’s previous films – Kaala (2018), for instance – but still possesses an implicit radicalness. Visuals of Buddha, Ambedkar, Periyar and Karl Marx are seen many times in Kabilan’s Karuppu Nagaram (Black Town) neighborhood. Sarpatta Parambarai and its head coach, Rangan Vaathiyar (Pasupathy), belong to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) political party, while we see the rival Idiyappa Parambarai donning Indian National Congress (INC) colors.
The film takes place during the Emergency period under Indira Gandhi, and in the background of the film we see many of the political developments of Tamil Nadu in this time. We witness the resistance of the DMK government against Indira Gandhi’s tyranny, the criminalization of DMK members by the Indian government, and the rise of M.G. Ramachandran’s ADMK, which Rangan’s son Vetriselvan joins. Kabilan’s fall from grace coincides with the Union Government’s dissolution of the DMK government in Tamil Nadu. Many current ADMK members slammed the film for allegedly portraying MGR and the ADMK in a bad light, claiming that the film was DMK propaganda – ironic given Pa. Ranjith’s criticisms of DMK governments over the past decade. Additionally, Kabilan’s final victory at the end of the film happens when he takes off the DMK’s red and black, and instead dons a blue boxer’s robe. Blue is the color symbolizing anti-caste revolution, a color theme we see in much of Pa. Ranjith’s filmography.
Another aspect of Sarpatta Parambarai that stands out is Kabilan’s wife, Mariamma (Dushara Vijayan). Most Indian films strip the wife of any sort of character, agency, wishes or desires – the ideal wife in Indian cinema is a subordinate, submissive, and quiet woman. However, Mariamma is none of these things. She regularly stands up, yells, and criticizes her husband’s behavior, and doesn’t put up with any of his actions during his fall from grace when he turns to alcoholism. In one scene, we see something never seen in Indian film – a group of attackers comes to kill a drunk Kabilan, and she wards them off and protects him.
Kabilan’s rise back to boxing glory is also portrayed with reverence to the communities that built boxing in North Madras. His new coach, affectionately named ‘Beedi Thatha’ (cigarette grandpa), is a fisherman. The fisherman communities were integral in not only making boxing the biggest sport in Madras, but in building Madras itself. The city was built from its shorelines, and Ranjith recognizes this. In the training montage with Beedi Thatha, the song “Neeye Oli” plays, which eventually became a hit in Tamil Nadu. The song’s chorus, neeye oli, nee thaan vazhi, means “you are your own light, you are your own path”, a reference to Buddha’s “atta deepa bhava” – a cornerstone in Dalit Buddhist philosophy.
As we see a rise in Tamil film critiquing the caste system, we see many directors choosing to fixate on one aspect of Dalit-Bahujan life – the physical violence and atrocities that caste oppressed peoples face. While Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai does show examples of this, including a scene where Kabilan is forcibly stripped while boxing (likely a reference to Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man), he highlights the community that Kabilan belongs to and its music, food, and politics in order to show resistance and resilience in his film.