It's easy to see where Indian filmmakers go wrong with sports dramas. Observe a boxer, a runner or a Virat Kohli on screen. In real time, they're almost always pumped up, bouncing off the walls with adrenalin. They're loud and passionate - as if thumping background music were consistently running through their veins. There's fire in their eyes. On their own, they're living, breathing Bollywood films.
All you need is a competent actor to internalize and perhaps live this madness. What you don't need is the filmmaker to do the same. The canvas need not be deafening to create this noise. You don't need the camera to behave like it's doing laps, the musicians to sound like they're skipping ropes and the words to sound like its writers are pumping iron.
Rocky, Not the Boxer but the Adjective
These overcooked, manufactured emotions are redundant layers in context of typical underdog stories. Saala Khadoos is everything that is wrong with this genre. The fact that it's simultaneously shot in Hindi and Tamil doesn't help its cause; the grammar of commercial South Indian cinema is its biggest shortcoming.
The story of a particularly hairy coach (R. Madhavan) who is transferred from Hissar to Chennai could have been an interesting one. Athletes adapt to new environments faster than others; it'd have been fascinating to explore this particular culture and communication gap. Instead, director Sudha Kongara - a protege of Mani Ratnam - glides over everything in pursuit of hardcore tropes, evil federation heads (Zakir Hussain; needs an intervention), dirty politics and jealous sisters.
Take A Chill Pill
She makes a superficial, screechy and awkwardly cut giant montage of cliched moments. Her protagonist, Madhi (Ritika Singh), a fisherwoman plucked out of obscurity, is a trembling mess of misdirected rage. After being established by a song called 'Jhalli Pataka', she spends all her time screaming, punching, snarling and hooting. She needs a therapist, not a coach.
When Madhavan tries his best to do a gruff Kabir Khan (Chak De! India), he invariably ends up barking incoherent accusations that sound like drunken performers from an Aaron Sorkin script are delivering them. It's almost like he is painfully aware of how bland and literally translated the lines (from Tamil, presumably) are. And it seems like he's always paying someone money in every second scene.
To establish his character, he is shown sleeping with a married woman first, before manhandling his students and bursting into a committee meeting with a can of beer. A jolly old chap indeed. His physicality is compelling, but performance art is a lot more than buffed up bodies. I've had a soft spot for Madhavan through the years; he looks like the nice guy that always finishes last. Perhaps it's time to acknowledge that he isn't Bollywood solo hero material.
Miss Singh, meanwhile, looks the part only when she's boxing (because she's a professional), but hams her way into the history books outside the ring. She was probably told to Indianize the spunky Hilary Swank (from Million Dollar Baby) template.
Shallow Side Acts
It doesn't help that she's surrounded by caricatures straight out of a.failed sports biopic. There's Madhi's inferior-boxer sister (Mumtaz Sorcar), who is about as consistent as Madhi's own sudden hate-to-love transformation (cue realization+song) for her coach. Or her rise from National team reject to World Championship Final in a 15-second montage of badly worded newspaper headlines.
There's also Nassar, who plays the junior coach, a nice-guy character whose sole purpose is to be perpetually humiliated. He is abused, told to shut up or kicked away by people.
It isn't entirely unfair to say that Saala Khadoos makes Mary Kom (the film) look like a masterpiece. This is not the comparison it needs, but perhaps the only one it deserves.