Writer-director Sudha Kongara’s Saala Khadoos (“Mr. Snooty,” according to the English subtitles) is a moving tale that utilizes all the best elements of sports movies past. Ritika Singh makes a splash in her debut, working opposite R. Madhavan in this story of two hot-headed boxers working toward a common goal.
Madhavan plays Adi, a boxing coach still smarting over the abrupt end to his own fighting career nearly twenty years ago. Dev (Zakir Hussain), the man who sabotaged Adi’s career, now heads the Indian Women’s Boxing Federation. Fearful that Adi will make public what he knows of Dev’s past misdeeds — as well as the chairman’s penchant for trading places on the national team for sex — Dev exiles Adi to the boxing backwater of Chennai.
Despite being set up to fail, Adi finds a promising fighter who has as little respect for authority as he does. Madhi (Singh) is the younger sister of the Chennai club’s top prospect, Lux (Mumtaz Sorcar). Madhi is a better natural fighter than Lux, but it’s Madhi’s fiery temper that leads Adi to focus his attention on her, at Lux’s expense.
As much as the story is about the personality changes that Adi and Madhi undergo while he tries to turn her into a champion, Saala Khadoos is also a story of sibling rivalry. Lux has always been special, the one who will finally lift her family out of poverty. A successful boxing career will confer her a spot in the police academy, and all of the family’s resources to this point have gone toward helping her reach that goal. Madhi’s success in the ring threatens not only Lux’s future but her very identity.
An old assistant coach (played by Nasser) explains the significance of the local conditions to Adi. All of the young women who train at the gym are poor, and boxing is a lifeline, not just a hobby. Adi can be as much of a hard-ass as he wants during training, but he’s morally obligated not to abandon them.
Adi’s character evolution is predictably slow. He’s never really cared about anyone before, and Dev’s betrayal still weighs heavily on him. Likewise, Madhi’s attitude problems make her hard to love. She’s been on the defensive for so long that she has trouble trusting anyone’s motives.
Singh is so much fun to watch as Madhi. That defensive attitude is reflected in her posture, her shoulders hunched protectively, giving away her confident swagger as the bluff it is. When Madhi hurts her right hand just before a fight, she spends the entire round holding her hand out of the way to avoid further injury.
Madhavan is terrific as well, looking especially cool as Adi rides his motorcycle during the opening credits. Nasser and Sorcar are super in their supporting roles, and Hussain is slimy as can be as the villain.