“Sarpatta Parambarai” and the cinematographic exploration of Dalit subjectivities

The setting is the north of Madras, more precisely the port area and its hinterland of a few square kilometers. The residents of the region are mostly from the working classes, a rare mix of castes and diverse religions living together. The period is between the mid to late 1970s, a period of great political upheaval in Tamil Nadu and the country. The context is a collection of boxing clans (or Parambarais) competing with each other for glory in the sport.

Sarpatta Parambarai, director Pa Ranjith’s fifth feature film in Tamil, was released on July 25 and was almost unanimously acclaimed by critics and viewers. The film captivates audiences with its presentation not only of boxing, a high-energy and dramatic sport, but also by a community’s complex relationship with its past and present, supported by its involvement in boxing.

Boxing came to the Dalits of northern Madras through their British masters. Just as the Brahmins and upper castes derived their education, privilege, and power in modern India from their association with the British, the Dalits of northern Madras inherited boxing. In Sarpatta Parambarai, boxing is a source of pride for the community as well as an autonomous space of social order. The thrilling energy of the film in every frame comes from this deep investment in the sport by the boxers, coaches, sponsors, clan members and most importantly, the teeming crowd of spectators.

It is fascinating that the Dalits who learned boxing from the British helped spread the sport among the diverse communities of northern Madras including fishermen, Anglo-Indians and caste Hindus. Equally remarkable was the formation of boxing clans that transcended family and caste loyalties. The pursuit of fame for his clan, the backbone of the film, becomes a secular pursuit by a secular means – excellence in the boxing ring.

In terms of human subjectivity, protest is a common thread that runs through all the characters in the film, in particular its two main protagonists. Rangan, a legendary boxer of his day who is now the head coach of the Sarpatta clan, is constantly in danger of being marginalized, despised, betrayed and humiliated. Yet he continues to strive at every moment, his sense of dignity and his exemplary code of honor intact.

Kabilan, a naturally gifted boxer who becomes Rangan’s protege, persists in the sport only to restore the glory of the Sarpatta clan and his beloved mentor. He literally has to fight to earn the respect of the community every step of the way, until victory is wrested from him by unfair means. After the inevitable collapse, Kabilan recovered thanks to the training efforts of an old fisherman recommended to him by his mother.

The conflict matrix within the film’s narrative is set up through grievances from the past, real or imagined, and apprehensions about the future. The director neither diminishes nor judges any of these conflicts, allowing them to take place in the most supreme of all arenas, the boxing ring. The genius of Sarpatta Parambarai is to highlight the multiple layers of Dalit subjectivity, from the intimate to the socio-political, through the symbol and metaphor of boxing.

Caste is never explicitly mentioned in the film, but frequent references to beef indicate Rangan and Kabilan are from a Dalit community. During an acrimonious exchange with Kabilan and his people, Thanigai talks about sending them a message when a cow dies in his house, an undeniable insult to the castes.

Following Ranjith’s Attakathi (2012) and Madras (2014), two other films – Pariyerum Perumal (2018) and Karnan (2021), directed by Mari Selvaraj – have explored Dalit subjectivities in new and important ways. Sarpatta Parambarai pushes the boundaries of this genre while being an exceptional cinematic achievement in its own right.

As in most other areas of modern life, caste has been a barrier to the entry of depressed communities into the world of modern art forms. It was not until the early 1980s that Dalit subjectivity began to find its place in modernist Tamil literature with the classic novels of Poomani, Piraku (1979) and Vekkai (1984). In Tamil cinema, it happened with Ranjith’s feature debut, Attakathi (2012). It inaugurates a new genre of Tamil cinema of which Sarpatta Parambarai is the latest example.

Our public discourse on castes has focused on the exclusion of subordinate communities from so-called classical art forms, hitherto monopolized by the upper castes. “Progressive” intellectuals have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to “democratize” these art forms by adapting them to subordinate expressions. However, these attempts run counter to the very nature of art, which functions best as “the primitive expression of the collective”. It is through this logic that communities develop their own artistic forms and expressions, based on their socio-historical conditions and the resulting subjectivities. Blues, jazz, reggae, and hip-hop are a few examples of these art forms in the Western world.

Neelam Panpaattu Maiyam, a cultural institution founded by Ranjith, is engaged in the development and promotion of such artistic expressions by Dalit communities. It is time to shift our attention from the subjectivities of guilty oppressors to the expressions of those who present a new and subversive view of the world in the fullness of their humanity. Sarpatta Parambarai makes a most eloquent and magnificent argument for this change.

N Kalyan Raman is a writer and translator

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