I already posted a spoiler-free review, but if you aren’t able to see the movie, or have seen it and want a reminder of what happened, or are just curious about my opinion in detail, here is a complete scene by scene breakdown!
We open with a flashforward in black and white of a final match, two girls in a ring, slow mo punch, Madhavan in the audience yelling. And then onscreen text “9 months earlier.” At which point my friend says to me “oh no, it’s going to be like Million Dollar Baby!” Which they must know was what everyone would be thinking! Very mean, filmmakers! Very mean! Making us suffer for like an hour and a half until it becomes clear that is not where it is going.
So, 9 months earlier, Madhavan is having sex with the TV on. Not classy, dude! Even less classy, something on the TV grabs his attention, so he stops with the sex and bolts up in bed to watch. Without a shirt. Which I do appreciate, I must say! I just re-watched Guru and I forgot about how incredibly beautiful Madhavan used to look. Like, really beautiful. But then he turned 30 and it turned into something else. He still has a presence, but his face is rougher and stronger, and his body is thicker and less graceful. This movie leans into that, lets his body be big and strong, and his hair grow out making his face look even rougher, and his whole persona be a big ugly tough guy. And they are putting it out there right away, in this first shot, with a big shirtless hairy chest and a big scowling face on top of it. And it works! At least for me!
The woman he was having sex with is less appreciative of his new look. Although, I guess presumable she has seen it all before? She yells at him for watching the TV when they were having sex and, hilariously, phrases it as a complaint because she “cleaned the house, did the dishes, sent her husband out, took a bus, came all the way here, and now he isn’t even going to have sex with her?”
Woo! Madhavan! Sex with a married woman! Good for you! No, really good for him! We also find out, in the course of her complaints, that Madhavan’s own wife has left him for a boxer he was coaching. So, if I’m Madhavan, a testosterone filled manly man in India, whose wife has left him and who is soured on marriage, what are my options? Pay a prostitute or remarry a young virgin. Sex with a married woman is definitely the least harmful option! She doesn’t need anything from him but sexual pleasure and can come and go as she pleases (as we see here, she decided to come for sex today, and now she is mad at him and leaving), and there is no power dynamic or sexual experience ickiness.
Speaking of power dynamics, that is what we are learning about on the TV in this scene. I have no idea how sports work in India, apparently it’s all under government control somehow? This is so weird to me as an American! Anyway, Madhavan is apparently some mid-level of coach who works underneath a head of the department guy. And he apparently really hates the head of the department guy because the press conference is about all of the times in the past when they have had public clashes.
We go from watching Madhavan watching on TV to the boss government guy sitting in his big fancy house talking to his chamcha who has brought him a secret recording of Madhavan drunk in a bar talking about his past that they were hoping to use to discredit Madhavan. Only, it discredits the boss guy instead, because Madhavan is talking about how he forces girls to sleep with him or he won’t select them, that’s the only reason boss guy even wanted the top job. And how India’s sports department has always been corrupt like this, even back when he was competing, in a qualifying match his couch put vinegar on his gloves, so that he was blinded in the middle of the match when he wiped his eyes and he lost his chance. All so a minister’s son would be selected instead.
Taking a moment from the actual plot, isn’t that contrast interesting in terms of gender? The male competitors are used for the power and money they can give to the bureaucrats as bribes, the women for their bodies. Because it is all a woman can give, all she is good for. I mean, both boys and girls are being unfairly forced to bribe their way to the top. But there is a second level where, even when offering a bride, girls are being told that the only thing they can offer is their bodies, while boys might be able to provide money or power.
The corrupt bureaucrat doesn’t take a moment to discuss the implications of the patriarchy in Indian society and just moves on to trying to figure out a different way to get Madhavan out of the way. Speaking of Madhavan, here he is! Coaching a group of female boxers and yelling at the judges when they don’t award enough points. He also grabs one of his boxers and yells at her to lose weight before the next match, it looks like she is carrying a rice bag around her waist! So, yeah, rude and crude, but getting his sexual needs met by an adult married woman, not his boxing students, who he just treated like he would any other athlete he coached.
Not that the authorities see it that way, he is called away from the match to be confronted in a big conference room that looks a lot like the conference room from the beginning of Chak De, India. And on the other side are a bunch of people who look just like the horrible committee members from Chak De, India.
Speaking of Chak De, India, I am back to sex with the married woman! In Chak De, the dealt with Shahrukh coaching a bunch of young women by making him basically asexual. Not unsexy, of course, that would be impossible. Especially in bearded feminist mode. But his character has no sexual desires that we can see. He lives with his mother and there is no wife now or at any point in the past. But for this film, they wanted Madhavan in big macho crude mode, so they had to make him a sexual being. Which means dealing upfront with how he is getting his sexual needs met, outside of his students.
(see? He is attractive to us in the audience, but there is no sense of him being attracted to any other characters onscreen)
Anyway, these conference table people are almost as horrible as the Chak De people! They have received an unsigned letter accusing Madhavan of sexual harassment. To which Madhavan says (and the subtitles don’t quite get this), “Great! That is the beginning of your story, let’s skip to the end! What are you going to do to me?” They are going to move his assignment, and send him down to Chennai. Again, is this how sports work in India? There is some central authority that just moves everybody around throughout the country?
Oh, and opening credits! With the title song over them as Madhavan rides a motorcycle and camps along the way, traveling to Chennai. Ending with establishing shots of posters Rajnikanth, so we know we are in Chennai. Definite sense of place here, by the way, more than usual in Hindi films, which tend to be more of a general national Indian identity. But that makes sense, since this was a Hindi-Tamil co-production (Madhavan of course is from both cinemas, the heroine only speaks Hindi but learned her Tamil dialogue phonetically).
Finally, Madhavan pulls up outside of a gym, to be greeted by huge banners and posters with his face on them. Okay, that made me laugh. Especially when he gives them a kind of “huh, I look good” look. Inside the gym, the junior coach comes to greet him, explaining that they had a whole big celebration planned, but he is 3 days later than expected, so now they are just taking down the banners. And don’t mock the banners, it’s what we do in Chennai! This guy is such an interesting character. Madhavan completely dismisses him here, and in most of their scenes through out the film, but he never seems to resent it or get angry. And he also never pretends to be better than he is, at one point he has a line acknowledging that he cleans the toilets at the gym and he doesn’t mind. But, as you will see through out the film, even talentless and humble, he can still contribute. And, possibly, by lumping in these truly decent types with the false decency he has seen in others, Madhavan is actually damaging himself and cutting himself off from support, just as his protegee (who we haven’t even met yet) will also cut herself off.
And now we will meet her! Madhavan is watching matches on the beach with the junior coach giving him tips about who everyone is. We learn that one of the girls is hopeless, but has slept with someone (at this point I thought it might be that she slept with junior coach, but junior coach reveals his essential decency through out the rest of the film, so clearly it was someone else), someone else has pull with a local power, but the real promising one is “Lux”, although Madhavan also dismisses her, since she is only boxing so that it will help her get a job with the police. Oh, and Madhavan rattles off all this information without needing any more info from junior coach. So, again, he clearly does his homework and is good at his job, even though everyone thinks he isn’t based on his appearance.
Oh, Lux! She is being brought to the match by a wild looking big girl dragging her in a cart, who she keeps encouraging to “go faster Didi!” So, okay, this is Lux’s big sister. Who clearly is the wild tough one who protects her. Which she does again at the match when the umpires vote against her, despite her clearly superior fighting. Junior Coach, by the way, expects Madhavan to confront the umpires, and Madhavan tells him its not worth it. So, again, Junior Coach shows his decency, and Madhavan shows his lack of interpersonal skills since he comes off as not caring, but more likely he just knows this match is so low level its not worth fighting over. But Madhi (Lux’s sister) doesn’t know that! She goes over and confronts the referees, finally throwing their table aside and wading in and throwing punches. Which is when Madhavan sits up and takes notice and goes “who is that?”
She’s a fisherwoman! This really is a Chennai set movie, huh? So Madhavan goes to the fish market to talk to her, where she is awesomely lounging in tattered old men’s clothing yelling out at people to come look at her fish. Madhavan sits down and asks her to let him train her. She yells at him to go away, he’s scaring off the costumers. He hands her cash and asks if that is enough to buy her time to talk with him. She laughs, and then rolls it up, hands it back to him, and tells him to put it up you-know-where. So unapologetically crude! I love it!
Madhavan doesn’t seem to love it necessarily, but it also doesn’t phase him. he just hands her more cash, and keeps handing it over until it is enough to get her attention. And then he offers her 500 a day to come to the gym and train for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. She says, basically, “Hell yes!” And then goes rushing home to tell her mother that she is going to be on the team too, just like Lux! And they won’t lose any money for it! Their home, by the way, is a shack. Not a picturesque one, but a truly realistically depressing one. Small, with bits of steel sheeting and cardboard looking stuff nailed on to hold the walls up. And their mother isn’t a picturesque fisherwoman either, she has tired hair, and sagging clothes, and a face that is ready for disappointment. But their Dad is the worst of all. He comes reeling up, drunk, and tries to take the cash. Their Mom swipes at him with her broomhandle to keep him away, and he moves like he’s going to hit back. He’s not funny or even terribly sad or scary. He’s just depressing and irritating and a deadweight that is clearly going to ruin everything good that ever happens to these girls, and which has already ruined his wife.
Anyway, this one time, the girls manage to grab the cash and run away, and have an awesome song!
And then there is another song almost immediately! This movie really moves fast! But between song a and song b, we have the first training session. Madhi shows up late, but is unrepentant. Madhavan gives her a quick speech about how he is just her trainer, nothing else, she will call him “Master” and even dream of him as “Master”. She says okay, with a definite “whatever” added on the end through her tone. And then drops and gives him 50 push-ups, as he demands. Including ending with one-handed push-ups. At which Madhavan gives her a little “impressive!” look. But he also notices that she had to kick off her sandals to do it, because she isn’t wearing sneakers. He tells her to get some, so she goes over to Lux, shadow boxing in front of a mirror and orders her “Lux, give me your shoes!” Which she does immediately, we see no sign of resentment. I really like this as establishing their relationship, almost as much as that song. Because neither of them think twice about this, what belongs to one of them belongs to both of them, there is no jealousy or discussion about it.
Sneakers on, she is ready to get in the ring! She starts out throwing wild punches, and when Madhavan stops her to teach her how to do it right, she says she doesn’t need to, she already learned everything from Mohamed Ali! By the way, Ali is mentioned a lot in this movie. Which I like! Often, they would try to insert some Indian sports hero and pretend that a lower-class Indian girl would have heard of the homegrown hero and not the internationally famous foreigner. Choosing Ali is racially, nationally, and religiously blind.
Oh, but Madhavan doesn’t think Ali could have told her everything, and has one of the male boxers step in the ring with her and knock her out to teach her a lesson. So, is he the coach of the male and female teams? Or is there another coach we never see for the men?
I’m not going to worry about it! I’m going to try not to worry about it!
And, training song! She drags things on the beach! She punches bags! Towards the end, she gets in a fight with a bunch of guys and Madhavan shows up and pulls them all away!
(like this, but a girl, and less wall climbing)
And then we see Madhavan talking to someone on the phone about her? I think it is his own coach who is now retired? But I thought his coach was corrupt? Maybe that was a different coach? Because this guy is all fatherly and mentor-y. You know the Guru-student relationship that is so important in Indian mythology and stuff? I still don’t completely understand it, but I do get that it is an intensely close bond that lasts a lifetime and involves both obligation and true affection. So, this is Madhavan’s Guru, and he is telling him all about the girl that Madhavan has taken on as his disciple. So, the Guru’s grand-disciple. He is saying she is super good, and super stubborn, but he is thrilled to be working with her. And Junior Coach is listening to this phone call, and getting drunk, and finally says he thought at first that Madhavan was just another of those coaches using the girls for sex. But now he has seen how Madhavan is with Madhi, and he really is a good guy! With a good heart! Oh, and Junior Coach also shares his drinking tip. Just keep ordering liver! Because if alcohol is bad for your liver, you just need to eat enough to replace it!
This is one of those edits that feels like they wanted to put in a different scene but didn’t have the budget. Because we go straight from Junior Coach giving his approval to removing it in the very next scene. Madhavan is watching Madhi spar, she does a knock out, and is celebrating, when he hits her legs with a rope. Everyone is shocked. In a “you can’t hurt a girl!” kind of way. Even Madhi is mad, but more about the disrespect. She threatens to storm off, but Madhavan says if she leaves, she should take her sister with her, because Lux won’t be welcome back either. And Madhavan immediately picks up the dragging weight and returns to training. That was a moment that felt very aware of sister stuff too, that she won’t even pause to think about it when Lux’s future is threatened. But Junior Coach disapproves, saying it was going too far to threaten her sister and force her to fight.
Sure enough, at the regional meets, with Madhavan’s guru has flown in to see, as Madhi’s grand-guru, Madhi waits until she confirms that Lux won her match and will move on to the next level, and then throws her fight and walks off. Take that, Madhavan!
But, Madhavan doesn’t even care. He is moving on to the next step in his training plan. He goes to her parents house and offers to pay her way to training camp, to keep her and her sister together in the hostel with him as their chaperone, that this could be a chance for both girls to move on. Their mother is eager, but their Dad is a jerk. He is all upset about losing the income if Madhi leaves. Mom ignores him and takes the money.
When Madhi comes home, she is not happy. She immediately assumes that Madhavan just wants to buy their bodies. Her Mom tries to talk sense into her, to tell her that his is her big chance and she will not let her pass it up! Dad is useless, and also assumes it is to buy their bodies. In the conversation, as they go back and forth, it comes out that the family plan was always for Madhi to work and sell fish, while Lux was the bright future, the one who might manage to be a policewoman and take them out of poverty. It’s for older sibling-younger sibling. The older works and sacrifices and gets respect and loyalty in return, while the younger carries all the hopes and dreams of the family on their shoulders and eventually pays back the sacrifices by supporting them all. Like Deewar!
(Picture this, but girls, and with a drunk Dad weighing them all down)
This is actually relevant, because it feels like part of Madhi’s resistance to the whole plan is that she was comfortable with her place in the family, being the one who works and sacrifices, but has nothing else expected from her. Lux is the one who is supposed to be ambitious and successful and the shining star, Madhi is supposed to be able to just keep her head down and work and ignore everything else.
Madhi takes the cash from Mom and takes off running through town until she finds Madhavan at a sporting goods store. She throws the cash at him and accuses him, in public, of just trying to buy both sisters for sex and reminds him that they aren’t like that. Then she, awesomely, goes out and grabs the helmet off the back of his motorcycle and uses it to break his headlights. At which point the owner of the store comes running out and says “Hey! Why are you breaking my bike!” She says “Hey! That’s not your bike, it’s Madhavan’s!” And then learns that Madhavan sold the bike to the owner of the store to make enough money to buy equipment for her. And that he has been emptying his savings all along to buy her equipment and pay for her sessions, since she isn’t officially sponsored. Again, how does sports work in India? Is there some sort of government money if you are officially accepted? If so, how is Lux accepted and she isn’t if everything else about them is the same?
And, love song! Learning that Madhavan is paying her way makes her see everything he did in a new light. The giving her money so she could take time to train, breaking up fights when she got involved, telling her she could be better, all of it. And in between these occasional flashbacks, we get present day. Where she and Lux are at the training camp, which seems to be in the mountains? Anyway, it’s cold, so Madhavan buys her a hat. It’s cute and multi-colored yarn thing and she wears it all the time. She also laughs at all his jokes and sort of squirms and smiles whenever he looks at her, and kind of awkward dances when she is running down the road because she is so happy. They perfectly capture a painfully obvious teenage girl with a massive crush and it is so embarressing I actually had to cover my eyes at certain points. Don’t make me relive those years! Gah!
And then it’s over and oh my gosh, I actually did cover my eyes at this point. The last thing I saw was her, in a sari for once, carrying a dish of food, and going into his bedroom. From what I saw between my fingers, and based on the Hindi I heard, I think that she came on to him, offered him food, was super obvious. He said, basically, “you stupid girl, of course I know you have a crush on me, it happens all the time in training, ignore it and focus on your work.” Which seems harsh, but is probably the best thing to do. No possibility of misunderstanding that! Madhi is awesome, so she doesn’t run off crying, but instead starts arguing, asking why he would do all this for her if he didn’t love her, and saying that she loves him and she wants to marry him, and if he doesn’t admit he loves her back, she will throw tomorrow’s match! Madhavan ignores the whole thing and just walks away. Again, probably the best possible option.
And I uncover my eyes just in time to see that Lux is in the background, having overheard the whole thing, and looking devastated. Clearly, she thinks that Madhavan and Madhi are actually having an affair, and that’s why Madhi is moving ahead of her. And then the other scene I had to cover my eyes for, Lux arranges for Madhi to hit a door when they are practicing and she breaks her hand. Ow ow ow owowow!
(inserting a happy hand moment to replace the last hand image in all our minds)
The next day, Lux wins her match, Madhi hugs her in congratulations, and then goes in to the ring. But she leaves her arm hanging, ignores Madhavan’s orders to defend, and loses the match. She bursts into tears, Lux hugs her, but Madhavan is furious! He drags her out of the ring, throws her on the ground, aims a kick at her (but doesn’t connect, I don’t think), and says he has wasted his time on her, she is worthless, he can’t believe he gave up a chance to go back to Delhi in order to keep training her, he never wants to see her again! And Lux stands to the side and watches the whole thing looking miserable.
I have such a hard time with this scene! For two reasons, both of which I can kind of come up with a backstory to explain, but the film doesn’t help me with it as much as I wish. Reason 1, Madhavan really lays into her here! And doesn’t even consider any possible other reason she may have lost, even so far as bothering to check her for injuries. And then just walks away and doesn’t look back. But, if he really believes she just threw a match because she loves him, then maybe the best thing he can do for her is really throw her around, yell at her, and then walk out of her life forever. Because she will never be able to reach her full potential until she is convinced to forget him forever. And this is all a viable interpretation based on what happens next, but they don’t really lay it out for the audience.
Second, Lux! What the what! First, you coordinate the injury, and then you don’t even explain it? The only way I can deal with it is if it wasn’t just jealousy, but a combination of jealousy and protection. If the female athletic arena really is that corrupt, and everyone assumes the coaches are sleeping with the athletes, then maybe she saw Madhi coming on to Madhavan and part of the mix in there with the jealousy was a sense of protection? Wanting to get her out before she got too far in? And seeing this final confrontation maybe made her re-think it since it clearly wasn’t a love thing for Madhavan after all? Both of these interpretations are possible, based on what we have seen so far, and what we will see in the second half, but they aren’t really explained as much as I would like in order to be comfortable with this scene.
Speaking of the second half, as Madhavan strides away towards the camera, we have INTERVAL.
And INTERVAL here too, I’ll be back with the second half tomorrow!