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The Tamil film Sarpatta Parambarai, which released at the end of July, has received a good response both among audiences and critics. ‘Paramabari’ generally means lineage or tradition, but here it means a clan or a club. The title of the movie refers to a boxing clan, and the story is set in the mid-seventies in North Chennai.
What makes this nearly a three-hour long sports drama worthwhile? It portrays the city’s now forgotten boxing culture, its camera work transforms every viewer into a spectator outside the boxing ring, and its characters and their dynamics are well-defined. More importantly, the plot is set against the backdrop of the party politics of Tamil Nadu, which used to be intertwined with the boxing tradition of North Chennai.
Politics is not new to Tamil cinema, but this movie makes direct references to the parties and the personalities, which is new. In particular, movies scripted by the leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), including C.N. Annadurai and Mu. Karunanidhi, focused heavily on politics. These Dravidian movies, which were prominent from the early fifties, slowly disappeared during the late seventies, but that was not end of politics on the screen, some examples being Achamillai Achamillai (No Fear, 1984), Mudhalvan (The Chieftain, 1999), Amaidhi Padai (The Peacekeeping Force, 1994), Sarkar (The Government, 2018) and LKG (2019). These films portrayed political parties and politicians, chief ministers and opposition leaders, corruption and rowdyism, but all with fictitious identities, not pointing at any party or a leader. The party flags were portrayed carefully so as not to depict the colours of any major political party.
Sarpatta Parambari has changed this. Major characters in the film are affiliated to DMK, AIADMK or the Congress party. Direct references are made to EVR Periyar, Ambedkar, Karunanidhi, MGR, Indira Gandhi and even M.K. Stalin. The story takes place against the backdrop of the Emergency period.
Although the film is celebrated by the masses and critics alike, opinions are divided in the political arena. Soon after the release of the film, Udhyanidhi Stalin, himself an actor and a star MLA of DMK, greeted the director Pa Ranjith and the team. Udhyanidhi underlined that the film has well portrayed how the DMK and its leader Karunanidhi stood out during the difficult days of Emergency. On the other hand, D. Jayakumar, a former minister of AIADMK government and the party’s organising secretary, condemned the director for undermining MGR and AIADMK. Jayakumar went on to explain MGR’s love for sports, especially boxing. On the face of it, it appears that the film portrays DMK in a good light and AIADMK in a not so complimentary way. But I think it is important to investigate different layers of the history. Let us start in 1942.
In that year, Teri, a British boxer defeated Arunachalam, a reputed boxer of the Sarpatta Parambarai. Kitheri Muthu, a popular Tamil boxer of the Sarpatta clan, later defeated the indomitable Teri. According to Muthu’s grandson, Johnson, Periyar gave Muthu the title ‘Dravida Veeran’ (Dravidian Warrior). As boxers were celebrated as stars, political parties did not want to miss out on the opportunity. After independence, the Congress party supported boxing. According to Nakkeran Prakash, a senior journalist born and brought up in North Chennai, K. Kamaraj, the then Congress chief minister of Tamil Nadu, gave the title ‘Desiya Maveeran’ (National Warrior) to a popular boxer Sundarrajan. Prakash adds that the DMK slowly took over the boxing from the Congress party.
The Sarpatta clan in the movie is coached by Vadhyar Rangan (Pasupathy), a champion of yester years and a prominent DMK functionary who is well respected in the neighbourhood. His dress code is simple but boasts the Dravidian legacy – a white dhoti with black and red stripes on the border (the colours of the DMK flag), a plain white jubba, and most importantly, a folded and crisp white towel on the shoulder, again with black and red stripes. When lower caste people were forced to wear the towel around their waist, Periyar asked his cadres to wear it on their shoulders. Soon, wearing a towel on the shoulders emerged as an iconography of the Dravidian politics, and, in the movie, Vadhyar Rangan wears the towel with pride.
Another subtle message lies in how Rangan names his son. In the days when babies were christened after the names of gods and mythological characters, the DMK leaders encouraged their cadres to name their children from Tamil Sangam literature, and also coined new names such as ‘Tamilarasan’ (King of Tamil), ‘Poyyamozhi’ (never speaks a lie) and ‘Kalaichelvi’ (daughter of arts). Rangan names his son ‘Vetri Selvan’ (son of victory). The name by itself carries a political message and helps to characterise Rangan.
In the opening scene of the film, the boxer Meeran (Sai Tamil) of the Sarpatta clan wears a robe with a rising sun, the symbol of the DMK, together with black and red stripes, while the Idiyappa clan Vembuli’s (John Kokken) robe is bordered with the tri colour of the Congress party. Vembuli wins that game, but the prize is presented by a local DMK leader, indicating that DMK is taking over the sport. Later, when Kabilan (Arya) enters the ring, he also wears a robe with the rising sun printed on it.
During the Emergency period and thereafter, MGR enjoyed the support of the successive union governments, and his party members grew powerful. The AIADMK slowly took over the ring during this time. But the transition was not smooth, as the game extended beyond the ring. According to Prakash, a prominent AIADMK leader of North Chennai and his associates started using popular boxers in smuggling and other shady trades, and the deterioration of professional boxing began. It soon got out of control and professional boxing was banned in 1991 during J. Jayalalithaa’s regime.
In the film, an illicit brewery is supported by AIADMK members, and Kabilan gets sucked into the business. At that time, liquor was prohibited in the state. I think it is not the intention of the director to glorify DMK or criticise AIADMK. He has captured the developments of the boxing culture in the mid-seventies, and that story cannot be told without the party politics of Congress, DMK and AIADMK in that order. The director in my opinion has attempted to portray the history earnestly, rather than promoting DMK or demoting AIADMK.
It is worth speculating whether Sarpatta will generate interest and courage among film makers to show politics and politicians in their ‘true colours’. Politics has always been a part of Tamil films — it needs to move up another notch.
Mu Ramanathan is a writer and engineer.