Boxer Adi Tomar was cheated out of winning Olympics gold for India by politics and a corrupt boxing commission. Betrayed by his coach, Dev Khatri, and a wife who left him shortly afterwards, Adi’s life is ruled by bitterness. Now in his forties, he is a top coach of the Indian women’s boxing team, but his temper and his abusive mouth keep him at odds with the boxing commission and his old rival, Dev, who is now its chairman. After a confrontation about the way boxers are selected, the commission exiles Adi to Chennai, known for its lack-luster boxers and poor facilities.
Adi is greeted by middle-aged “junior” coach Punch Pandian. Pandian’s easy-going manner is partly responsible for his mediocre team. Disgusted at the lack of boxing talent, Adi’s attention is drawn to Madhi, the hot-tempered and scrapy sister of one of the boxers. Madhi is a fisherwoman by trade and only seventeen. Reminded of his own youth, Ali immediately sees potential in her raw ability. But when he tries to convince her to train with him, she rejects him. Although she loves boxing and Mohammad Ali in particular, she assumes Adi wants a sexual relationship. It seems that girls are selected for the team in the “bedroom” and not because of their talent. This is something Adi detests. Madhi’s poor family has pinned all their hopes on older daughter Lakshmi to do well as a boxer, with hopes that she will eventually become a police officer, thereby bringing respect to the family.
Madhi reluctantly agrees to be trained when Adi offers to pay her a nice amount of money every day she shows up. Adi works hard to build discipline into wild-child Madhi. She is resentful, arrogant, and insulting, but Adi hangs in there and eventually it pays off. Madhi realizes Ali is not after her body, but truly interested in making her a champion. He will proudly show her off at the national selections.
Lakshmi, who has worked hard for years, begins to see her sister as a rival for the coach’s attention. Jealous, she injures Madhi’s hand causing her to lose at the selections. Profoundly disappointed and unaware of Lakshmi’s involvement, Ali sees his hopes for Madhi and himself dashed. Believing he has wasted his efforts on her, Adi dumps her. Now without a coach, boxing commissioner Dev decides to claim Adi’s protege as his own and take her an important cultural exchange for boxing.
R. Madhavan (Adi) and newcomer Ritika Singh (Madhi) create a fascinating picture of a coach/student relationship. Madhavan looks the part of a rough guy: big, brawny, shaggy and rumpled. As Adi, he is deeply passionate about the game, resenting the way sexual favors and politics overshadow talent. He is impatient with mediocrity and quick to insult it, yet he shows immense patience with Madhi’s immaturity and disrespect. For all his social failings, he is intelligent and very observant, and his generosity towards the team and Madhi, testify to his big heart.
Madhavan pares his character and his acting down to basics.
Ritika Singh explodes onto the screen with raw energy. She is loud, crazy, crude and full of life. When she is happy, she dances joyfully with abandon. Physically, Ritika (who actually is a professional boxer) has a sturdy build and lots of stamina, bringing total believably to her part. Emotionally, she carries us from immaturity, rebelliousness, vengeance, and sadness, to the sweetness of a first love, learning persistence, determination, discipline, and finally victory.
The rest of the cast all add dimension to the story. Veteran actor Nassar as junior coach Pandian, showed the love and concern of a protective father to all his girls. Mumtaz Sorcar, a Bengali actress, is also a trained boxer. She was able to express both love and confusion as her own need to win was threatened by her sister’s talent. Zakir Hussain as Dev Khatri, the corrupt chairman, is motivated by his past embarrassments to bring Adi down.
“Saala Khadoos” writer and director Sudha Kongara has given us an emotional and inspiring sports story. Coach and student have the same fierce and passionate nature, but Adi’s experience and love of boxing finally bring Madhi’s potential into focus, making them both winners in the end. Also worth commending are cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan, appropriate and energetic music by Santhosh Harayanan, and tight editing by Sathish Suriya. The movie was also made simutaneously in Tamil as “Irudhi Suttru”.