Early in Sudha Kongara’s Saala Khadoos (a bilingual also released in Tamil as Irudhi Suttru), Adi Tomar (R Madhavan) calls his trusted senior and informs him of Ezhil Madhi (Ritika Singh), a unique boxing talent according to him who is not only gifted but also just like Adi himself. Adi is a temperamental boxer/coach, sent to wallow in a region considered infertile in the boxing world – Chennai. The senior comes down to watch her in a local tournament and just as it begins, the young boxers line up and get their blessings from the coach. Madhi simply scowls at Adi and continues ahead. The senior asks, “Ye hi hai?” It’s one of the finest moments in Saala Khadoos, not because it heralds something huge or that it is filmed well. It is just the economy of expression that we see in the writing. It is the kind of writing that made Chak De India the gold standard in this genre.
At its core, Saala Khadoos is a study of two characters very similar to each other and therefore their repulsive nature. Kongara tries to walk this tight rope, balancing the predictable nature of a sports film on one side and this character study on the other. Both Adi and Madhi are given to an array of conniptions and operate at all times on a short fuse. It helps that both the performers are first rate here. Madhavan is appropriately buff in both form and function harking back to his Aayutha Ezhuthu (Yuva in Hindi where Abhishek Bachchan played the same role) days. He plays Adi on all levels, summoning up that ursine disposition his mind manifests on the outside and when needed, the suppressed heart of a fighter that he is inside. Singh is a firebrand in her own right who doesn’t think twice about landing a punch or two on the head coach, be it in the closed confines of a train compartment or in the ring in front of television cameras. It’s her elder sister (Mumtaz Sorcar as Lux) who is into boxing so that she can get into the Police department on sports quota. Lux’s fists are made of pressure and burden, of a family waiting to be uplifted. But Singh is the free spirit, gifted and not a care in the world. She is the one who has to be paid to attend training sessions. She finds her own demons that exist at the inner and the outer. Within herself or her family and the larger politics outside in the form of a bureaucracy full of grudges. These battles become a challenge for both the mentor and the protege. These are some of the best parts of Saala Khadoos – the various shades of these characters, Nassar as the junior coach and his interactions with both Adi and Madhi. The dialogues especially during the first half is great. Nassar gives a great turn here of a man who speaks his heart but also one that knows where his place is in the larger scheme of things.
The rest of the film though follows the trajectory of an underdog sports film. Kongara needs to be credited for filming of the fight scenes – hopefully Karan Malhotra is taking notes. But there are the usual reaction shots, a whole timeline explained away with magazine clippings and newspaper headlines, the sudden mutation of the father and the one-dimensional nature of rest of the cast, including the supposed antagonist (Zakir Hussain). Yes, Saala Khadoos deals more with the emotional battle than what goes on inside the ring but it would have been good to see the film get technical with Madhi’s training or her skills. What else made her the boxer that she is. I came away with a sense of incompleteness having enjoyed the film, the performances but also wondering about a missing shock and awe factor.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)