Pa. Ranjith's latest release has flashes of brilliance but is let down by the uninspiring filmmaking
A story of two clans fighting for their identity over a sport, set in a pre-Emergency era in North Madras, featuring Arya, Pasupathy in the lead, with Santosh Narayanan's music and direction by Pa. Ranjith - Sarpatta Parambarai ticks all boxes right in its attempt to string together a rustic, rousing sports drama. Except that the plans don't fall in place here. Here's a period film that may have its heart in the right place, some terrific dramatic arcs, intense action in the boxing ring though the sum of its better parts isn't greater than the whole. Besides indulgently running close to three hours, the film is loud and isn't mounted on a canvas that this story may have otherwise deserved.
Sarpatta Parambarai is an ideal story celebrating underdog victory, on paper. Kabilan (Arya), a youngster from the Sarpatta clan, is a small-time labourer, a boxing enthusiast and the son of a former boxer (a local Mohd. Ali-like figure) who once gave international sportsmen a run for their money. Kabilan's mother Bakkiyam (Anupama) is adamant about not letting her son pursue his sportive interests and suggests he lead a peaceful life with his better half Mariamma (Dushara). However, destiny has other ideas and inevitably pulls him towards his passion. The local coach Rangan (Pasupathy) believes he's the last hope to salvage the pride of the Sarapatta clan in the boxing ring while having to fight the immediate favourites, the men from the Idaiyappa clan.
The dramatic elements in the story are well-established right in the beginning. Vetri, son of the coach Rangan, is livid with his father for not giving him his due in the ring. Kabilan invites the agony of two well-trained sportsmen in his clan who are denied a chance to fight an epic battle with their nemesis Vembuli (from the Idaiyappa clan). Kabilan's mother is particular his son doesn't lose his direction in life in his attempt to rise as a boxer, just like his father. All odds are stacked against Kabilan, which gives the viewer a stronger reason to root for him. Just when everything appears to be falling in place, Sarpatta Parambarai loses its momentum.
It's not news that Tamil cinema thrives on telling its stories through the eyes of an all-too powerful male character who rises against all odds to emerge a winner. Despite Pa. Ranjith's best attempts to give other characters in Sarpatta Parambarai a voice to present their side of the story, it's obvious that none of them is as well written as the central part Kabilan. Kabilan, for a fact, too isn't among the best lead characters written by the director (among all his films). Of course, he gives his blood and sweat for the sport, but the journey of Kabilan feels superficial at best.
The rise-fall-rise trajectory in Kabilan's career is sudden, convenient and there's no reason to believe how he could rise out of nowhere to safeguard the prestige of his coach and clan purely through his observational skills. The coach Rangan's role starts on an intriguing note though he too becomes another cheerleader through Kabilan's journey. Most of the women in the story, for instance, behave quite similarly with their aggressive streaks (read melodrama), domesticated and having no identity beyond their men. Mariamma and Bakkiyam are mere tools to remind Kabilan of his true purpose. Bakkiyam's emotional outpour becomes intolerable beyond a point.
The supposed antagonist Vembuli is always insecure about Kabilan's rise. Sadly, the more interesting character for an antagonist, Rose (nicknamed Dancing Rose for his footwork in the boxing ring) is left orphaned midway through the film. The other sportspersons in the Sarpatta clan are singlemindedly envious of Kabilan. Everything is only about Kabilan and the film doesn't give you a fair idea of others' struggles. The characters are all too black-and-white while the conflicts in their lives are set up well. The political backdrop amidst the on-field action, throwing glimpses of the Emergency era and MGR's rise, doesn't add much value to the story.
Sarpatta Parambarai catches your attention as long it establishes the characters in the initial stretch but loses its fizz beyond a point. The three-hour length gets exhausting beyond the post-intermission portions. The vignettes of the clans' history, their epic clashes in the past would've made for interesting viewing but the filmmaker prefers to tell more than show. The English speaking character Daddy, essayed superbly by John Vijay, merits a standalone show/series purely for his wicked sense of humour and his ability to make you laugh at the most unusual junctures in the story.
Visually, there isn't much for the viewer to savour. The redundant montages of the clock tower and the narrow lanes of North Madras make it too obvious that the film was shot on a shoestring budget. Santosh Narayanan's background score works much better than his uninspiring numbers. Arya gets his physique spot-on for the role, pushes himself hard to get into the skin of Kabilan though he isn't the most natural of performers in the emotional sequences. Dushara Vijayan as Mariamma gets a spirited introductory stretch for her character. It would've been wonderful had the director fleshed out her equation with Kabilan in greater detail.
Anupama Kumar disappoints with an overly exaggerated performance, while the likes of Santosh Pratap, Kalaiyarasan make the most of their grey roles as insecure sportsmen. John Kokken is more than a handful in the boxing ring but his character doesn't have meat beyond his sportive abilities. If there's one actor who stands like a rock amidst all the chaos, it's Pasupathy. He conveys the character's deep-rooted feelings merely through a twinkle of his eye, the way he folds his dhoti and the superb body language while others aren't even half as effective while hamming as if there's no tomorrow.
Sarpatta Parambarai gets the spirit of the sport right but the filmmaking is unimaginative, the storytelling, cluttered and chaotic. It falls somewhere between promising and disappointing on the whole.