There’s a sly joke in Irudhi Suttru about the Kollywood (and indeed, the Tamil) tendency to bestow titles and nicknames, put up cut-outs and banners, transform the most ordinary of events into a combination of Pongal, Deepavali and the Superstar’s birthday. The utterly ordinary event, here, is the return of Hissar-based boxing coach Prabhu (a quietly effective R Madhavan) to Chennai. In his honour, the local gym is festooned with posters that proclaim: Kuthusandai singame, Thamizhnaattin thangame. The joke isn’t just that these celebrations are for a man who’s been disgraced (a sexual harassment charge hangs over him), a man who did not choose to come back in the first place. It’s also that he wants none of it. He doesn’t want this fuss. He just wants to find new boxers and train them. In other words, he just wants to do his job. Had this been a Gautham Menon movie, he’d have turned to the junior coach (Nasser) at the gym and barked: Cut the crap!
That seems to be the motto of director Sudha Kongara as well. Irudhi Suttru is resolutely old-fashioned – not in the Rajini Murugan sense, where there’s nothing new, but in its conscientious commitment to the basics: writing, craft, performances. Sudha doesn’t want to make “world cinema.” She doesn’t want to make alphabet-soup cinema either, pandering to A, B, C centres. What she’s made is something rarer – a Rocky (or maybe we should say Creed, in this Oscar season) kind of heart-warmer where a predictable narrative is polished up by… cutting the crap. The situations are fresh, funny. There’s not a moment that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t rise from what came earlier, that doesn’t slip into what comes later. “Dignity” isn’t a word we use very often with our commercial cinema, but this film has that quality. A situation involving something as sensational as oral sex is depicted through a bruised lip. Whatever was used to create that bruise is the only kind of makeup in this movie, which is similarly free of artifice.
The story has to do with Prabhu stumbling upon a girl he finds a “born champion.” But Madhi (Ritika Singh), who sells fish in a corner in the northern parts of Chennai, doesn’t see herself as a boxer. Her sister Lux (the excellent Mumtaz Sorcar) is the boxer in the family; she’s just the over-excited cheerleader. But Prabhu convinces her, and what follows is a battle of wills. If he’s got attitude (he attends a boxing committee meeting slurping from a can of beer), she’s no pushover either. She mocks his age. She mocks his paunch. She mocks his attempts to make something of her. This isn’t sports training. This is breaking a wild horse. (Santhosh Narayanan’s untamed tunes, all serrated edges, are their own versions of wild horses.) Ritika Singh, who’s a professional boxer, is marvellously skittish. She plays the part like someone who grew up in the mountains, with no exposure to civilization. Even when still, she appears to be at the verge of bursting out of her skin. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a heroine so… alive.
But the film isn’t just about this. It isn’t just Million Rupee Baby. It’s also a story about sibling rivalry. Lux begins to resent Madhi because she saw herself as the star, and now the supporting actor has top billing. There are delicate layers here. Lux sees boxing as a means to a job with the police force – it’s a way to drag the family out of poverty, gain some respect (perhaps even fear) in the neighbourhood. And here’s this upstart, boxing for the sake of boxing, because she has it in her genes. Lux has a terrific moment where we see how much she’s sacrificed, and what it would have meant to her had Prabhu chosen her as his protégée. We see a lot of red in boxing dramas, but here we also see bits of grey. Prabhu himself is no saint. In his very first scene, he’s sinning with another man’s wife. And then something about boxing comes on TV. He pulls away and sits up. He likes women. But he loves boxing.
And what happens when he gets both in the same package? Irudhi Suttru, thus, is also a love story. (We could call it a… glove story.) I had a lump in my throat when Madhi calls Prabhu’s bluff and asks what this is if not love. (I had a bigger lump at the end, when she leaps into his arms.) Most movies make the mistake of harping on issues – they turn into pamphlets. (The recent boxing drama, Bhooloham, was one – its final scenes still smelled of the printing press.) Irudhi Suttru ticks off its fair share of issues as well (poor infrastructure, politics in sports, sexual harassment), but it’s always about the characters. (The writers are Sudha Kongara and Sunanda Raghunathan.) Except the painfully one-note villain (Zakir Hussain, whose Tamil is the most wince-inducing since Shah Rukh Khan’s in Hey Ram!), everyone else is thoughtfully fleshed out from their generic moulds. The Wastrel Father is also a man who’s recently found Jesus. The Long-Suffering Mother is also the woman who encourages her daughter to box – and she’s from a Hindi household. The Junior Coach is… just the junior coach. But Nasser negates the clichés. He gives the acting world’s equivalent of a warm hug from a grandparent.
Irudhi Suttru is what you get when an in-sync team comes together. The cinematographer is Sivakumar Vijayan, who shot Vidiyum Munn. With just two films, he’s already become one of our best mood manufacturers. In a couple of scenes, the theatre seemed flooded by sunlight. You feel you need to borrow Madhavan’s Aviator sunglasses. The film is filled with these touches. I liked the touch that Prabhu, when transferred to Chennai, doesn’t hop on to a plane. He bikes it, pitching tents along the way. A touch like that is worth five pages of dialogue. Even the most minor characters give us a glimpse of a larger story. I’m thinking about the boxing committee member played by Radharavi, who’s there for all of five minutes. But we see him with Prabhu, and we sense their shared history, the true nature of which is revealed at the end. That something this deep, this dramatic is accomplished through a laugh-out-loud line (one of many) is the sweetest punch of all.
- Irudhi Suttru = last round
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