January 29, 2016
R. Madhavan, Ritika Singh, Mumtaz Sorcar, Nassar, Zakir Hussain, M.K. Raina, Baljinder Kaur, Kaali Venkat
The rise of the underdog is a favourite theme in sports films. Yet, Saala Khadoos manages to tell us something more than we thought we already knew.
R. Madhavan here plays Adi Tomar, an ill-tempered retired boxer whose career in the ring was ruined when his corrupt coach conspired to end it. Now a coach himself, he discovers a cantankerous young fish seller from the slums of Chennai and sees in her a potential world champion. Ezhil Madhi (debutant Ritika Singh) is destined for greatness, but to get there she must first overcome her extreme poverty, an alcoholic father, family tensions, her own foul temperament, her self-destructive impetuosity, politics in Indian sports and sexual harassment.
Saala Khadoos is a Hindi first for director Sudha Kongara who made her screenwriting debut with the National Award-winning English film Mitr, My Friend (2002). This latest venture was shot simultaneously in Tamil as Irudhi Suttru.
Half her battle for this film has been won with the casting. Ritika is a professional kickboxer, which explains why her scenes in the ring seem so effortless here. She is also a natural before the camera, and – this is especially disarming – not obviously conscious of her sweet face.
Ritika is not the only one who looks like a real person rather than an actor in the film. Mumtaz Sorcar playing Madhi’s elder sister Luxmi, Baljinder Kaur and Kaali Venkat as her messed-up parents from a mixed marriage all appear as if they were plucked out of a Chennai shanty and planted in Saala Khadoos.
Leading them ably in a role far removed from the wimp he plays in the Tanu Weds Manu films is Madhavan. Adi is constantly on edge when he is not in the midst of a self-induced explosion and Maddy plays him just right. His frustration, bitterness, irritability and anger come across as believable at all times, rather than exaggerated for effect.
Besides, he looks incredibly cute with that beard and fluffy, wild hairdo, which is quite an achievement considering that he is the bloody groucho of the film’s title.
Among the high-profile supporting players are Nassar as junior coach Pandian in Chennai who has a love-hate relationship with Adi, M.K. Raina as Adi’s supportive senior back in Delhi and Zakir Hussain as Dev Khatri, the predator who authored our hero’s exit from the ring and is now targeting Madhi. The veterans ace their roles in a film brimming over with talent.
In terms of performances then, the natural progression of events in the sporting arena, the execution of its boxing scenes, production design and locations, Saala Khadoos has an authentic feel to it. It falters on other fronts though. The film could have done without so many songs. The volume of those numbers and, in places, the background score should have been lowered. And the romantic angle, needless as it is, required better handling.
In a country where mainstream cinema is populated with heroes who have been known to play screen teens when they’re in their 30s and 40s, where Madhavan himself at the age of about 38 played a college kid in 3 Idiots, no doubt it is a pleasure to hear Adi tell Madhi, “Main tere baap ki umar ka hoon,” when she professes her love for him in her typical rough-hewn fashion. The film would have been served better if that element had not been introduced in the first place though, or having brought up the point, if the story had at least just left it at that.
Some of the beauty in Chak De! India (2007) – one of the best Hindi sports films ever made – came from its absolute clarity that hockey coach Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) does not get romantically involved with players Preeti Sabharwal (Sagarika Ghatge) and Vidya Sharma (Vidya Malvade) at least as long as we are with them on screen. After all, every male and female lead do not necessarily have to fall for each other, and it was such a joy to see a film acknowledge that two people of the opposite sex can be something to each other other than lovers. Saala Khadoos leaves most things unsaid on that front in its finale, but even the hint of things to come dilutes the story it is trying to tell.
And a crucial story this is. The insidious manner in which officials pursue their personal agendas through India’s sporting federations is widely known yet more shocking with each telling. The story of a player-coach team blossoming amidst institutional muck, Saala Khadoos rises above the ordinary with its detailing, including the turns in Madhi’s relationship with her sister, the scenes with her parents, Dev Khatri’s chilling shenanigans and the vulnerability of women in particular in this exploitative system. The film’s many impactful satellite characters stay on in the memory even as Madhi throws her last, very very satisfying, well-aimed punch.
So yes, it needed to tone down its pitch in places and stay more focused, but there is so much to recommend Saala Khadoos. The fact that it is a sports film is reason enough to pop open the champagne since the genre is too rarely visited in Hindi cinema. As with most such films, the final outcome in the ring is not hard to predict here. The journey to that moment though is emotionally engaging and, after a point, nerve-wracking enough to draw cheers of delight. Adi and Madhi are worth investing in. That’s what makes this film worth watching.
Rating (out of five stars): ***
CBFC Rating (India):
Hindi poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/UTVMotionPictures/
Tamil poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irudhi_Suttru