‘Toofaan’ and ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’: Reimagining the Boxing Movie Genre
Toofaan and Sarpatta Parambarai: How despite the predictable sports movie formula, the tropes can be reimagined.
Two films from two different film industries, playing with the same genre, released around the same time, and yet, are worlds apart. Despite the sports film formula that is set in stone, the two films use it in ways spectacularly different from the other. The beauty lies in witnessing this difference in the treatment of the boxing movie tropes by two distinct filmmakers.
There’s no new way to write the recipe of the boxing movie. Rocky or Raging Bull, Mukkabaaz or Mary Kom, each of them will have an underdog brimming with passion, a coach-disciple relationship, transformational training montages, the final hyper-climax of a match, and the eventual redemption and rise to victory. The usually more successful—biopics—follow the same modus operandi. The ingredients that make all the difference to an otherwise repetitive telling of the same story are the nuances, the characterization, the cultural setting, and most certainly, the perspective.
This is what makes Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Toofaan and Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai similar and yet wildly contrasting films.
The Cultural Context
The representation of the cultural milieu of the two stories creates two starkly disparate understandings of the cinematic worlds they are trying to create. Sarpatta Parambarai’s terrific 20-minute-long opening stretch is the best I have seen in a sports film. It establishes the locale, the cultural standing of the protagonist, the people, and the importance of the sport to the village with such finesse that one cannot help but question the gimmicky visual grammar of Toofaan. The done and dusted derivation of the ghettos and bastis of Mumbai only appears to be a bad hangover from Gully Boy at best. That the dialogues of both films are written by Vijay Maurya makes a lot of sense now.
Sarpatta Parambarai’s period setting of the 70s vexed with the Emergency is beautifully stitched into the writing, costumes, political beliefs of the characters, and even serves as a major plot point. Pa Ranjith’s brilliant ability to infuse it into the subtext is a thing of beauty. The first boxing sequence between the Sarpatta and the Idiyappa clan—that skilfully sets the tone of the generational clan rivalry—features the boxer of the former in a red robe with a rising sun on the back, symbolising Tamil Nadu’s DMK and its ideology. The opponent is seen in a white robe with the stripes in Tricolour, signifying the State.
The protagonists of both films come from marginalised communities. However, the depiction of the complexities of caste and class varies heavily between the two. Toofaan’s Aziz Ali’s religious identity seems like a token representation lacking intricacy, conveniently placed only to cater to the plot of the already overt conflict between the characters.
The nature of the sports genre is highly predictable. We know what to expect. Both our protagonists are doused in underdog tropes. Although Toofaan is largely dedicated to one singular character and his journey, it's disappointing how little they explore it. The best example of the banality would be showing Farhan Akhtar’s Aziz Ali, a goon and an extortionist, who also plays with the kids at the orphanage, only to establish the Robin Hood-esque trope of Dongri ka Don but with a heart of gold.
Sarpatta Parambarai’s Kabilan, played by Arya, is adjoined to a larger story about his people, his coach, and his clan. We see several layers to the character, especially through the relationship with his mother and his wife. A brawny boxer, he whimpers under the wrath of his mother and weeps at the thought of his wife leaving him.
Sarpatta Parambara also doesn’t follow the standard synthesis of a national championship or Olympics. It replaces nationalistic pride that most sports movies overflow with, with the honour of the clan and the attachment to it.
The relationship between the coach and the student is central to both films. The reverence and awe for the mentor, coupled with the esteem of the clan is the driving force in Sarpatta Parambara. The fluctuations that the relationship goes through are not unusual, but are portrayed with an ingenious authenticity; a far cry from the brief and distorted one between the characters of Farhan Akhtar and Paresh Rawal.
Paresh Rawal’s Marathi-speaking, ‘love jihad’ believing, Islamophobic Nana Prabu, who thinks that the Hindus are in peril—contrary to what has been the verdict of a divided viewership—might just be the most interesting part of the film for me. Plunging into his character and giving the relationship the many layers and the complexity that it deserved—the lack of which has resulted in the character coming off as problematic—could have made a different film altogether. Had it been given depth and time on screen; it could have been a great subversion of the coach-disciple bond in sports dramas.
Coming to the sport, with the swiftness and the technicality of the contact game, there's only so much innovation that the boxing sequences could make room for. Same angles, same punches. Both films do a fine job at the choreography of the boxing sequences. Sarpatta Parambarai, however, doesn’t let you get jaded with them, considering how many there are in the film. What the film does with the character of Dancing Rose—a boxer who not only fights, but summersaults, cartwheels, and sneaks in body waves and poses in the ring—is remarkable and hilarious at the same time. It makes for the most riveting fight in the movie. It is hard to imagine a Bollywood film with a sequence such as this one.
Every boxing movie ends in a colossal climactic fight that is to decide the fate of the protagonist. In Toofaan, the final match is the means of earning the pride that Aziz Ali lost, and fulfilling the yearnings of his late wife.
Sarpatta Parambarai disrupts this order wherein we witness this exhilarating, decisive match only halfway through the film. What follows is a crackling second half. However, it doesn't let the actual fight in the climax become any less thrilling. The genius lies in the vision of the filmmaker.
Another key component of sports films is the now indispensable and cliched transformational montage of the protagonist. Farhan Akhtar’s metamorphosis in an under-construction site is not unimpressive, but it only seems like what Bhaag Milkha Bhaag would have looked like in Mumbai. Sarpatta Parambarai, yet again, subverts this trope with Arya on an abandoned beach, swimming, rowing boats, chasing crabs to the lyrics that translate to "You are your light, you are your path. Rest not", embedded in Buddhist philosophy.
The Supporting Characters
The women in both films occupy important roles in the supporting cast. Maariyamma, played by an excellent Dushara Vijayan in Sarpatta Parambarai, doesn't appear on the screen until much later but still manages to capture notice and gravity. Even with limited screen time, her character is fleshed out, unlike Mrunal Thakur’s Ananya in Toofaan. What starts as a strong character quickly shifts to a chirpy, sunset-loving love interest whose purpose is to make the protagonist a better man. The depiction of the inter-religious couple’s hardships to merely find a roof, although simplistic, is sincere.
The supporting characters in Sarpatta Parambarai are so vibrant they demand attention. They aren't introduced to us from the very beginning—like Aziz Ali's side-kick Munna (Hussain Dalal), whose only job is to serve a punchline or two—and yet, they are memorable and interesting. The character of Daddy as the post-independence Anglo-Indian is one of the liveliest and funniest characters but is not reduced to mere comic relief. The catholic nurse played by Supriya Pathak in Toofaan, on the other hand, exists only to force in a Christmas montage in a song to cut a slice of religious harmony. A personal favourite remains Dancing Rose played by the incredible Shabeer Kallarakkal, who is strong yet funny, with the opposition and yet idealistic.
Despite having almost the same run-time, the characters and the arcs in Toofaan seem hasty and incomplete.
The sports genre and the release of the two on the same OTT platform, make the comparison inevitable. The comparison, but, ought to be disproportionate and flawed because Toofaan, in the guise of a sports film, tries to be a lot of things, only to fail in each. It is a tedious and unironic repetition of what we have seen a million times. Sarpatta Paramabari, in contrast, reimagines and extraordinarily subverts the tropes, adding value to the roster of sports movies.
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