We confess, when we saw the teaser of Saala Khadoos (Irudhi Suttru in Tamil), we weren't particularly enthused. It felt like the same story - disgraced sportsman turns coach to underdog protégé. We've seen these before, and that the director is a debutante raised no hopes of it being anything out of the ordinary. But it turns out we were wrong. And we didn't know being wrong could feel so good.
On some level, we were right. It is in fact a clichéd and completely predictable sports story that you've seen a bunch of times already. Coach Adi Tomar (Madhavan) is a grumpy has-been boxer who lost his career to petty politics in the association. The reason for his downfall, Dev (Zakir Hussain), is now out to ruin his coaching career, too.
That is when he finds talent selling fish in Chennai. Madhi (Ritika Singh), fishmonger by profession and fiery amateur boxer by interest, is raw, undisciplined talent whose journey in the world of boxing is Adi's new raison d'etre. This plot couldn't get more familiar if it took the same bus as you for the next three years.
But to write the film off for that reason is an outright faux pas in film appreciation. Because a film is about its story as much as music is about the tune. If the raagam was all that mattered, why bother with the singer's voice, with trying to write lyrics that stir, with arranging the right instruments and tones? Can't we just keep humming tunes and move on? Stories can be centuries old. It is the narrator's skill in animating one that can make it a thing of beauty - fabulous, full-blooded and mint-fresh.
Indeed, Saala Khadoos is possibly the best performance in the already splendid career of Madhavan. The music (Santosh Narayanan) is sometimes mellow, sometimes rustic, and over all terrific. The visuals (Sivakumar Vijayan), while beautifying the streets of Chennai, also manage to elevate the story-telling. And the supporting cast, Nasser and Mumtaz Sorcar in particular, give it their all.
But a laundry list of compliments doesn't describe the fine direction that Sudha Kongara gives to her (slightly underdone) script. Take the scene where the coach gifts the student a boxing robe with 'India' printed on it. There's gratitude on her face but she doesn't know how to speak it. The no-nonsense coach brushes that aside and nudges her to get to practice. Understated, fuzzily warm, and beautifully acted.
Or you could let all that be and just watch it for Ritika Singh. This boxer-turned-actress throws in a performance that is as powerful as her punches. She has a live-wire appearance and is absolutely unshackled in expression. The innocence, the disappointment, the cheer and the cheek - she wears them all on her sleeve, and if her expressions don't impress you, we assure you her push-ups will.
That brings us to the point where we discuss why Saala Khadoos is an exceedingly special movie. This reviewer generally refrains from talking about misogyny in cinema because you work with the aspirations that the film sets itself. If the girl is there solely for arm candy, well, so be it. You can't (or at least you ought not to) complain to a guy who willingly pumps kerosene in his vehicle's petrol tank.
But when a movie does it right, when it pro-actively shows a woman dreaming big, a woman losing all and starting from scratch, a woman falling in love and not being bashful about it - basically a woman having the qualities that are considered heroic in a man - then it is important to spell it out: Watch That Movie. Take your daughters, your nieces, your sisters and your mother to watch it. Because heaven knows they could use a role-model without a moustache.