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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Badshaah Pahelwan, Review: There’s a brown wrestler in the boxing ring, tra la la la la

Badshaah Pahelwan, Review: There’s a brown wrestler in the boxing ring, tra la la la la

When director of photography S. Krishna turned producer just over two years ago, vicariously, through his wife, Swapna, having directed two action genre films, he decided to make his third film in nine Indian languages. Down the line, he settled for five, with the original in his native Kannada, and dubbed versions in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Rather ambitious of Krishna, considering the film is just another fight fest, true to its title.  

Incidentally, the title is spelt in seven different ways: Badshaah Pahelwan (Hindi screen title), Pailwan, Pahelwaan, Pehlwaan, Pehlwan, Bailwan and Phailwan, depending on which website you are surfing and which language version are you searching in the engine. Phonetically, Pahlvaan is the nearest to the Urdu original, and means wrestler. Spell it any which way, the films remains a wrestlemaniac’s delight, with fight after fight after fight, and not much more. In a strange twist, when the wrestler enters the boxing ring, late in the day, he is more than once saved by the bell, just like the film’s progress.

Sarkar (Suniel Shetty), who runs a gymnasium, training wrestlers, in Gajendragad, is impressed when young Krishna (Kichcha Sudeep Sanjeev), an orphan, bets three coeval opponents that he will beat them in a three against one wrestling match, and succeeds against heavy odds. He asks him what prompted him to enter into such a wager, and the kid replies that he was hungry. Sarkar asks Krishna to come under his tutelage, and become a resident trainee. Krishna, whose pet name is Kichcha (!), agrees. But one day, he tries to sneak away, not sure whether Sarkar will really raise him to become an ace wrestler or throw him out on a whim. Sarkar assures him that he is not like a son, but really his son. Krishna trains hard and becomes an ace wrestler. In neighbouring Ranasthalipura, there lives a rich tyrant, Rana, (Sushant Singh) whose diktat runs across the territory, and whose huge cut-outs dot the small town’s skyline. Over-awed by his entourage of heavies, even the new, duty-bound, idealistic Police Inspector (Raghu Gowda) pays him obeisance. Rana is a wrestler too, and has always won the local wrestling tournaments.

After Rana’s men insult Sarkar during a match, Rana quietly slips out from the gymnasium one evening, under the pretext of going to the temple, and beats up the loud-mouth goons black and blue. At the temple, he sees Rukmini (Akaanksha Singh) and falls in love with her. A sworn celibate and teetotaller, Krishna is a non-conformist. When his pal Pappu/Pappanna (Appanna) teases him, about his abstinence, he gulps down mouthfuls of liquor. Boxer Tony Sebastian (Kabir Duhan Singh) wins a match by foul means and is banned for five years. However, he manipulates, bribes and threatens the authorities, to get the ban lifted. Disgusted, his coach (Sharath Lohitashwa) resigns, and starts looking for a new Tony to groom. Meanwhile, Krishna beats Rana in the wrestling finals, after which he gets married and settles down. The marriage is against the wishes of the girl’s father, who even tries to buy out Krishna. Krishna’s obsession with Rukmini angers Sarkar no end. He banishes Krishna and forbids him from wrestling and using anything he learnt from his guru about the combative sport, even as Rana wants a re-match, and the boxing coach wants someone who can knock-out Tony.

“One who fights to prove his strength is a ‘rowdy’ (bully/goon), but one who fights for a strong cause is a warrior.” This quote is hears at least twice in the film. Krishna wrestles because his mentor wants him to become the national champion. When that does not happen, he turns to boxing, to earn crores, with which he wants to train street children to become champion athletes. Now, with such lofty ideals, what else will the protagonist do but slam opponents and pack punches? Add to that the fact that he is completely illiterate, and has no skill other than anything that involves the use of brute strength. Having established such a persona for their hero, screenplay writers Krishna, D.S. Kannan, Madhoo then give him a chance to exhibit his soft side, that of a loyal friend of his street chums and a doting father of a baby girl. As soon as you see him getting married and then becoming a parent, you know that Rana will kidnap the two and hold them to ransom to get to Krishna, and the writers oblige, though they cleverly stall the predictable by a few scenes.

They do not bother to tell you how Sarkar runs his substantial operation single-handedly and completely side-track the goal that should have been the raison d’être of the film—winning of the National Wrestling Championship. Instead, the last one-third of the film is devoted to a Pro Boxing League, sponsored by Fair and Handsome, a cosmetic male skin-whitening brand that has had, among others, superstar ShahRukh Khan modelling for it. Besides raking in the moolah through in-film advertising, the twist in the plot gives the film an opportunity to widen its reach and rope in aficionados of another blood sport--boxing. Mythological references to Krishna and Rukmini (Mahabharat) as names for the screen couple and the branding of Krishna and Kans as die-hard opponent wrestlers, and the use of the director’s moniker as the hero’s name, are so tropeical that it hurts. Why can’t the lead actors have other, non-epoch star-born names? We have thousands, if not millions. Could not find the name(s) of the Hindi dialogue writer(s) anywhere, which if good for him/them.

Wrestling, Indian wrestling, that is, might be downmarket for the multiplex audiences, they could be thinking, so let’s get in the glamour of boxing, with a match that goes into several rounds more than what the champion is used to clocking. There are crucial moments in matches of both sports, moments that turn the tide in the protagonists’ favour, but director Krishna fails to make them unusual or exciting. His concentration is almost entirely taken-up by the visual impact, though he has not photographed this film himself (Karunakara A. has). Karunakara’s lensing includes standard high, top angle, picture post-card shots as transitions. Several spectacular song dances are woven in, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Sudeep not getting into robotics, or the steps that need jelly-bellies, rather jelly bones.

If there can be a Javed Jaaferi clone, with a body to die for, he would look quite like Sudeep (Kannada star; two films for Ramgopal Varma in Hindi; Sudeep and Krishna had a successful combination with Hebbuli, another action drama). Now, discounting the stunts, where he is either beating or getting beaten by opponents, with or without blood-letting, he has barely five scenes where he needs to emote, and he does an okay job. Whether some non-native Hindi speaker has dubbed for him (what a preposterous idea!) or he has spoken his own Hindi dialogue (great guesswork!), I do not know. What I do know is that the idea has not worked. Within two weeks, we have had a Saaho and a Pahelwaan, where the protagonist hails from South India but the dialogue has not been dubbed by a native Hindi speaker. Great if the actor can get it right, bad if the accent dominates. Prabhas (Saaho) slowed it down in an effort to get it right, while Pahelwaan does no such thing. Badshaah Pahelwan has so many North Karnataka references that it might have been difficult to transpose the entire setting to a Hindi-belt milieu, unless major changes were made in the visuals and dialogue. And, apparently, they took the economical way out. There are often sub-titles for lines that are either not spoken at all! So what happens to the Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam versions? Three more guesses!

Akaanksha Singh (TV; Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya) is there probably because you need a heroine, and definitely because Rukmini and her daughter have to get kidnapped. Showing welcome spunk in the introductory scenes, she has to then sink into melodrama, including clutching a bottle of sleeping pills when she is forced to marry someone other than Krishna. Sushant Singh makes the most of a meaty role and a carefully carved physique. His arrogance is palpable, and screen-presence intimidating, though no back-story is bothered with. Also, he seems to have no family at all, like Sarkar and Krishna. Suniel Shetty has a meaty role too, and he does not ham. The trade-mark glowering is subdued, and, what’s more, it is in character! At 57, he was just the right age for a father figure.

Kabir Duhan Singh does what all baddies do in Hindi films, and has a body to match. It is pretty much a uni-dimensional character. Appanna is largely over the top, but has his moments. Thoroughly type-cast, Avinash plays Rumkini’s greedy father. Sharath Lohitashwa makes a convincing coach. Routine support comes from Raghu Gowda as the Police Inspector, Dharmendra Urs as the Auto-Rickshaw Driver, Cheluvaraj as Rana's hulky bulky Chief Henchman, RJ Pradeepa as himself, the commentator in pro boxing league, Sharvari as Sudeep's daughter Jaanu, Sooraj as young Krishna, Vaijanath Biradar as a Construction worker, Kari Subbu as Basha, along with Vamshi, Chikkanna, Malathi Saradeshpande, Shambhavi Venkatesh and HMT Vijay.

At a length that varies from 158 to 166 minutes (language versions might differ and the censors might have wiped out some of the blood and gore in some shortened editions), the film takes undue advantage of Dolby Atmos sound, and launches a full-fledged attack on our auditory nerves (mine are not completely desensitised, not yet, so it hurts). Music director Arjun Janya, who contributes 31 minutes of song numbers, in collaboration with lyricists Astha Jagiasi and Sujeet Shetty, that have very little relevance to the environs or vocabulary of the film’s universe, or editor Ruben or Krishna himself show no mercy, as the soundtrack repeatedly launches drop-kick after drop-kick on the spectators, and pounds away to glorify the fighter-in-chief.

Let’s compare the two sports of wrestling and boxing. Wrestlers wear only minuscule briefs (at village level, these are called langotees), use no gear and aim to throw their opponents on to the floor, with a lot of gripping and grappling. It is a contact sport. Boxers wear boxer shorts and gloves, and throw punches with those gloves. They too aim to knock down their opponents to the floor. One main piece of gear is used by boxers only, and is called the mouth-guard/gum-shield, which is a kind of denture that protects teeth and gums when blows land on the jaw, undeniably the most battered part of any boxer’s anatomy. Watch out for this Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) made prop that might just leap out of the screen and land in your lap, unless you take ‘evasive action’.

There is no doubt that it has been encapsulated as an inspirational and motivational film, aimed at mass fan-following of Sudeep, and may garner a few million eyeballs in its regional language versions, led by the Kannada mainstay. Thrills on offer are what you would expect in any film about combative sport, pitting the underdog against the ungodly. On the Hindi screen, it lacks chutzpah and magical something that lifts motivation and inspiration to involvement and entertainment

I am reminded of a Hindi movie called Boxer—no, not the 1984 Mithun Chakraborty starrer—the one that was released in 1965, and had India’s most famous pahlvaan of three decades, late Dara Singh, playing the titular role. Now it was common knowledge that Singh was the free-style (read WWE style) wrestling champion of India, and his promoters claimed, of the world. So what was he doing in a movie called Boxer? Well, if they could do it 53 years ago, why not in the present day?

Boxer? some of you may sneer—what movie are you talking about? we’ve only seen the Rocky series, Raging Bull and Muhammed Ali: The Greatest. Any Hindi stuff, I may ask? Sultan and Dangal, you might reveal, in a top of the mind recall.

Alright then, you are likely to go with me, when it comes down to awarding points…I mean rating. But are you going to watch it?

Rating: **


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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