Readers Write In #394: Sarpatta, Vadachennai and Reverse Engineering Sports Metaphors

Posted on August 13, 2021

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(by Karthik Amarnath)

There’s something about a Deep Focus interview that gives me a mixed feeling. On the one hand, there’s two creative writers playing off of each other as they delve into a work of cinema. They unspool the narrative, break down characters, and pore into nuances. The exchange is enlightening, and thoroughly enjoyable. On the other hand, I enjoy deconstructing movies in my head. It’s a kind of reverse engineering— layering interpretations, connecting narrative corridors and rounding out sharp edges. All of that puts me into the structure, and helps me navigate the maze of metaphors, at least as it exists in my head. So when I watch a Deep Focus, and the creator talks about constructing the movie, there’s an unease like I’m a visitor who’s painted graffiti on the walls. But then again, if a Pa Ranjith and a Baradwaj Rangan (BR) are doing a spoilery deep dive into a Sarpatta Parambarai, you just toss all that, mask up and listen.

Their conversation was dense and layered and, amongst other things, a masterclass on filmmaking; you get to see how a kernel of a vision germinated into drafts, which grew into the sprawling mansion that the movie was. Half an hour in, the discussion veered into politics, and Pa Ranjith talked about how he had shaped the Rangan character in an early draft as having two wives. Almost instantly, BR responded with a chuckle, and you could see why. The DMK connections in the movie were more than implicit, and the bigamous clan leader in the early draft brought that connection front and center. But when BR asked Ranjith about the broader political context in the movie, his response was along the lines that it provided a strong period ambience for the story. (I just wanted the politics to touch the story from the outside.)

For a moment, it seemed like Pa Ranjith had put up a wall. In my deconstruction, politics wasn’t just the ambience for the action, but in fact built into the scaffolding. I saw the boxing ring as a metaphor for the political process. In the movie, Rangan, the coach, gives Kabilan a history lesson about boxing. Now if you replace boxing with democracy and clans with parties in that speech, everything would still make sense. I saw Rangan as an Annadurai type of character who was as much a party leader as he was a mentor. And for at least half the movie, it seemed like Kabilan could be an MGR type “outsider” who became his mentee. Fair skinned, no formal (boxing/political) training and, much to the chagrin of the “natural” descendants, became a trump card (for the clan/party). Look at the second half of Kabilan’s arc, and that too has a political interpretation albeit a generic one. (Spoilers), A newbie sees early success, gets drunk on power, grows corrupt, gets kicked out, and then regains his footing by working at the grassroots.

I could see why Pa Ranjith didn’t want politics to be front and center in Sarpatta. A telling segment in the Deep Focus interview was when Pa Ranjith talked about the reception to his earlier movies. He lamented that critics focused so much on the milieu and social commentary, and ignored the craft that went into movies like Attakathi and Kaala. That was a key moment, one of deep irony, because he was facing a critic who was criticized for doing exactly the opposite; appreciating the craft in Madras while ignoring the caste commentary. Now, in Sarpatta, there is a caste discrimination angle, embodied through Thanigan’s character. It’s there but it’s not the focus. When you view it through the political lens though, it takes a different meaning. In fact two narratives collide in that gobsmacking interval moment in the movie. (Spoilers) Until then, you have the backdrop of the DMK/Dravidian regime resisting the central/Aryan powers. At the very moment that the centre subverts the democratic process to dismiss the DMK government, Thanigan’s (upper caste) men also disrupt the boxing bout and punish the (lower caste) Kabilan.

Sports is such a microcosm of life that there’s nothing surprising about deriving metaphors from it. And Sarpatta is hardly the first movie to use sports for a grander design. The Cold War subtext of Rocky IV, or the civil rights angle in Ali (which Ranjith stated as one of the inspirations for this movie) are easy examples. In fact, Sarpatta wouldn’t even be the first Ranjith movie with a sports angle. There was a mini-narrative in Madras with the Karthi character as a soccer player. But the connection to the broader narrative wasn’t as well realized there, and the last soccer action scene felt like a commercial compromise.

The North Madras movie before Sarpatta with sports as an effective metaphor was Vetrimaaran’s VadaChennaiVadaChennai, like Sarpatta, had a sprawling setup with a rivalry at its core. Like Sarpatta, Vadachennai also tapped into a sport which had a history in North Madras. But carrom isnt a sport that plays out straight like boxing. And VadaChennai’s script doesn’t opt for a linear narrative like Sarpatta. There’s four chapters with different perspectives, like the four sides of a board. And while boxing lends itself to testosterone fueled, adrenaline pumping duels that can end with a knockout punch, carrom players have time to think, each action triggers a sequence of reactions, some intentional, others unexpected, and players wait for their turn to play. The game is slow and strategic, the players, cool and calculating. And that’s a great metaphor to view the gangster saga in VadaChennai, a movie which (spoilers) doesn’t so much end with a rousing knockout punch as it does with a simmering pause, and a wait for the next move/movie.

Boxing is a blood sport, the weight of a player’s blow smashes an opponent’s jaw. In carrom, the brunt of action is borne by lifeless coins on a board, like nameless underlings in a gang. And not all coins are the same. There’s an important queen coin, and VadaChennai makes it obvious who that could be. On both timelines of the movie, the player with the queen seemingly has the upper hand. And, then there’s the striker, stronger than the other coins, passed around from player to player, used to drive the action. Like how the Dhanush character was tossed around and “used” in VadaChennai.

Watching a boxing match is a visceral experience, you clench your teeth and feel the punches. And you don’t have to be a clan member to engage with the contest. Just as you don’t need to be a party member to follow an election (In the Deep Focus interview, Pa Ranjith talks about how the everyman identifies with a political party.) My favorite bout in Sarpatta is the second one between Kabilan and Raman where we only see the audience for a while. You can see them baying for blood; they don’t just want a guy to lose, they want him dead. Contrast that with the interval carrom game in VadaChennai. The players, audience, guards, all stay unmoved, waiting watchfully for the actions to unfold— for some, it’s just the board game, but for others, it’s the larger game at play.  (Spoilers) And these games are disrupted in spectacular fashion, just like in the interval bout in Sarpatta.

Sarpatta is a sports movie with a political backdrop while VadaChennai is a gangster movie with a sports backdrop. Both are richly detailed epics with a full slate of meaty characters. Now, both could have been made without those backdrops, and they would have still had solid stories to tell. But they weren’t. And the backdrops open up a maze of metaphors to dwell, and that makes a world of difference, even if it all ends up as graffiti on a wall.