Sudha Kongara’s second movie after the Tamil Drohi is as subtle as an uppercut. The bilingual drama (also made in Tamil as Irudhi Suttru) takes an inherently dramatic sport – boxing – and burdens it even further with heavy emotions, plot twists, tears, redundant songs and a loud and insistent background score. The movie is unnecessarily overblown but also curiously affecting due to the knockout performances of real-life fighter and debutant actor Ritika Singh and Mumtaz Sorcar as her elder sister.
Saala Khadoos packs in many issues that affect female Indian athletes – poor sporting infrastructure, indifferent and corrupt government officials, and sexual harassment by coaches, selectors and administrators. The movie seeks to warn young women of the perils that could befall them if they lay themselves bare for the glory of the game and the nation. It doesn't exactly seem to be the appropriate place to suggest that it is perfectly alright for a young boxer to fall in love with a coach who is twice her age, but Saala Khadoos goes right ahead and does just that.
Adi, the coach, is played by R Madhavan, the Tamil actor who has also appeared in several popular Hindi films, including 3 Idiots and the Tanu Weds Manu films. Though Madhavan has piled on the kilos of late and has become a blubbery version of himself, Saala Khadoos is at pains to remind viewers of his heartthrob status. Madhavan appears as a shaggy-haired, aviator-sporting dude who is more convincing on a bike than around the boxing ring, from where he yells imprecations and maledictions to his young wards.
Since he is a maverick, Adi is forever in the crosshairs of a corrupt boxing federation potentate, Dev Khatri (Zakir Hussain). Exiled to Chennai on a false sexual harassment charge, Adi finds himself coaching a bunch of listless boxers, including Lakshmi (Mumtaz Sorcar). But it is Lakshmi’s firebrand sister Madhi (Ritika Singh) who catches his eye. The daughter of fisherfolk, Lakshmi hopes to use her boxing experience to get a job in the police force, but Adi instinctively realises that the untrained Madhi is a preternatural talent who can become a champion if she reins in her surliness and picks up some discipline.
The instant chemistry between Adi and Madhi, which is sparked by their mutual rebellious streak and their apparent disgust for each other, is not random. A predictable triumph of the underdog sporting drama gets extra layers of passion that have little to do with boxing. Madhi swoons over Adi, blissfully smiling at him in an unwitting BDSM moment when he hits her with rope during training, and her love for the game intertwines with her feelings for her vastly older trainer. An unusual May-December romance with shades of Pygmalion gets underway, which has implications for Madhi’s professional progress and her relationship with her sister Lakshmi. Meanwhile, the repulsive Dev Khatri plots away in his attempt to show Adi his place.
Neatly shot by Sivakumar Vijayan on actual locations that give the narrative a documentary feel, Saala Khadoos is both energetic and enervating. Kongara displays a welcome curiosity about the sometimes tricky relationship between female athletes and their male coaches, but she piles on the melodrama when it isn't needed. In pushing the romantic track to its logical conclusion, the director risks undermining Madhi’s achievements in the ring. The Mary Kom biopic of the same name, starring Priyanka Chopra, is hardly the smartest of sport movies, but at least the lead character is fighting for her own glory rather than for the affections of a man.
The course correction is provided by the movie itself. Madhavan growls and broods as best as he can. Zakir Hussain and Nasser, as a junior coach, are convincing in their roles. But the strongest sequences belong to the women. Mumtaz Sorcar is very good as Lakshmi, while Ritika Singh compensates for her rawness with her immense presence. Whether she is snapping away at her opponents or tearing around the ring or gazing moony-eyed at Adi (who doesn’t mind the attention one bit), Madhi is a feisty character and Singh the perfect actor to play her. Singh’s off-screen boxing abilities make her fighting utterly believable, while her immersion in her role helps her navigate the movie’s trickiest scenes. She also pulls off the climactic bout, which invokes the best traditions of the boxing movie, daring the audience not to slide to the edge of their seats. Saala Khadoos is actually a love story, but there is enough boxing here for fans of the sport. The title refers to the attitude of its rude coach, but the movie belongs to his headstrong pupil.