Sports movies by their very nature tend to be predictable, formulaic affairs. They seldom deviate from such traditional narratives as the rise of the underdog, the comeback of the temporarily waylaid, the transformation of the rebel star into a team player, and the redemption of the tireless, committed coach, himself a failed professional.
Saala Khadoos, written and directed by Sudha Kongara Prasad, fails to rise above the timeworn clichés of the genre, but nevertheless succeeds in creating a credible world and, thanks to affecting performances from its principal players, gives us characters that we can care about.
Former boxer and disgraced coach Adi (R. Madhavan) is exiled to Chennai by corrupt boxing federation big-shot Dev Khatri (Zakir Hussain), who has an old axe to grind. Now stuck coaching below-average female boxers, Adi finds a potential champion in firebrand fish-seller Madhi (Ritika Singh), whose sister Laxmi (Mumtaz Sorcar) is part of the local boxing team. In Madhi, our cantankerous coach seems to have to met his match, a pigheaded rebel with little regard for protocol.
It’s a recipe for melodrama, and the film falls right into that trap. Clashes between coach and pupil get tiresome after a point, but unlike Mary Kom whose screenplay merely glossed over the struggle of becoming a champ, real issues are addressed more honestly here. From the politics involved in selections, to corruption, sexual harassment at the hands of officials, and even the tendency to become romantically involved with mentor figures, Prasad’s script doesn’t skimp on uncomfortable truths.
It’s the little details, however, that stay with you. A crackling confrontation scene between Madhi and her sister Laxmi cuts close to the bone, and scenes in which the girls’ mother is revealed to be more broadminded and encouraging than their father are particularly refreshing. The chemistry between Adi and his protégé is combustible stuff, and acting across the board is impressive, with credible turns from such reliable players as MK Raina and Nasser in supporting roles.
Of the central cast, Zakir Hussain is terrific as the slimy official, and Mumtaz Sorcar is very good as Laxmi. R Madhavan does a solid job as the shaggy haired, bulky built coach who refuses to give up on his troubled star, but the knockout performance is delivered by real-life boxer and acting debutant Ritika Singh who is wholly convincing as the untamable Madhi. She has an arresting presence on screen, and you’re genuinely moved by her plight.
Saala Khadoos sticks to familiar ground as far as a sports film goes, although the climatic bout is genuinely thrilling. Amidst all the faux sentimentality, we still get a protagonist that we can’t help rooting for. That is the film’s real success. I’m going with three out of five.