A film about the making of a boxing champion, and she’s a woman. A film about a sportsman who loves and lives his sport, but is screwed over by politics. Only to heartwarmingly redeem himself by training a complete underdog. It’s inevitable that Sudha Kongara Prasad’s bilingual Irudhi Suttru / Saala Khadoos will be compared with Shah Rukh Khan’s Chak De India (2007) and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004). Some might even remember Tom Hanks’ A League of Their Own (1992). But when Madhavan powerfully steps into the frame, looking scruffy, hulking, arrogant, and raw, even Clint Eastwood is forgotten.
The trailer of Saala Khadoos is near perfect, with a riveting rags-to-glory premise set up in the first 20 seconds. Remove politics from sport, and you’ll find a champion in every gully in India, promises the voiceover. Cut to a figure in a hoodie, one of those potential champions. Cut to a black and white boxing ring. A boxer throws a punch, and the opponent falls. So much is conveyed in these silent scenes. The potential champion, a rough diamond who no one noticed. The probability of falling many, many times.
The next segment takes us to a banyan-clad Madhavan practicing his boxing on a terrace. Director Sudha Kongara Prasad trained under Mani Ratnam, and there’s certainly a lot of talent on display. The cinematic kind. In the sparse background is one of those rickety chairs, useful but cheap. The sole laundered item, a pair of pants on a line, speaks volumes about the solitary, self-sufficient life he leads. An overcast sky, and the ocean. In a single shot there is a man against nature, and the focus and purpose of his life – boxing. Just that.
Cut to the politics. Across the table sit smirking Association bureaucrats. They hold the fate of champions in their hands. They understand how to manipulate the system. There’s obviously a backstory of antagonism which the trailer skips over. It’s enough. David vs Goliath, where Goliath is the system, and David is one of their best boxers.
Can you really touch a man who has given it his all, and become the best? You can’t get rid of him, but you can transfer him to some unimportant, far-flung place. In this movie, it’s Chennai. He’s told by the complacent Association man to go find some ‘talent’ in Chennai. The way he mockingly spits out the word ‘talent’, you think he’s talking about goats for slaughter.
It enrages Madhavan. He grabs the Association man’s crotch and belts out a dialogue in a style that the original Mahabharata series made famous. ‘If I had just wrenched this out ages ago, then Indian boxing wouldn’t have had to see this day.’ It’s cinematically path-breaking in an industry which tip-toes around male bodies worshipfully, parodically, but never directly. There is a primal restoration of masculinity at work. Momentarily, blue collar takes on white collar.
Cut to Madhavan riding his bike to Chennai. The journey, with beautiful trees and forests and seemingly empty roads, looks like the beginning of a wonderful adventure. Santhosh Narayan’s road music draws us into the sequence. The hero, his bike, his rucksack. The world before him. He urinates during one stop and the camera casually waits. The message is clear – he is who he is, and he has nothing to hide. The song reiterates ‘without fear I walk, on the path I decide’.
The brilliance of this buildup is that when Madhavan finally encounters the ‘talent’, Ritika Singh, he has nothing to prove to anyone. Saala Khadoos looks to be a step ahead of Chak De here, because SRK had to prove himself as a Muslim patriot. Madhavan, as he smiles slowly while the ‘arrogant fisherwoman’ Ritika Singh demonstrates the ‘fire’ of a champion boxer, is purely here for the love of boxing.
Saala Khadoos can have strong female protagonists because the hero lacks nothing. Which is why, in her introductory scenes, she wears ‘comfortable’ clothes, dispenses with ‘sexy’ moves, and the lyrics assures us that she ‘doesn’t care what the world has to say’.
Man, woman, Madhavan doesn’t care. He’s interested in a champion boxer to make India proud, and his eyesight isn’t limited to half the population. When after some inspirational training and fight sequences, he throws her on the ground and shouts at her, he says ‘I thought you could achieve what I couldn’t.’ Neither of them can bother with the niceties. They have that in common.
Saala Khadoos promises to be a great film at a time when women-friendly films struggle to speak beyond the language of the English-speaking ‘politically correct’. It is also a context where working- class men are routinely cast as sexual aggressors. It sets up an ethos of equality, based not on ‘correct’ speech and ‘nice’ manners, but on the ability to see oneself in another, and believe in their potential to be equally heroic, regardless of gender.
And there’s romance. Right at the end. The timing couldn’t be more different from the usual love story plots. Instead of this ‘love interest’ defining their relationship, it’s their mutual respect, mutual journey, and shared approach to the world that defines their relationship. The romance is just a bonus.