Director: Ali Abbas Zafar
Cast: Salman Khan, Anushka Sharma, Amit Sadh, Kumud Mishra
It’s Eid and we have Salman Khan returning with Sultan, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. Sultan is about, well, Sultan Ali Khan (Salman Khan), a wrestler from Haryana. Zafar opens with a mixed martial arts tournament being lampooned for its falling ratings and everything more or less follows from thereon.
We see Sultan working at the Water Works Department, a Monopoly card he was presented with when he won the Olympic Gold for India. This instance also leads to a lot of water works in his personal life, but more on that later. There is nothing in his current life that points to him being an Olympian.
He lives in a one-room house, makes tea for himself, locks the door and leaves for office on a scooter in need of refuelling. On the way, he picks up school kids, buys them juice, and at work, collects donations for reasons unknown and helps tractors get off potholes. An Olympic Gold winner is doing all this instead of telling his story to a ghost writer and signing deals with publishing houses. We get the story from Govind (Amit Sadh), Sultan’s friend.
Sultan, at its heart, has two strands running together. There is the familiar champion of yore making a return to the field. There is another endless arm wrestling bout he fights with himself, for his love, seeking a redemptive arc in his personal life. Zafar, therefore, knows how important the love story is to the film. He gets a lot of things right around it.
Aarfa (Anushka) is also a wrestler, senior to Sultan by all counts. Sultan courts her in some irresponsible ways at first, and gets rightly rapped on the knuckles. It stuns Sultan to find out that Aarfa is nothing like he imagined and this is required for Sultan’s first redemptive arc, his encounter with wrestling as a sport.
How all this ends is one of the biggest problems with the film. Sultan is 170 minutes long but it still feels like this is the part Zafar could have spent more time with. Having done the foreplay right, Zafar finishes off prematurely, a great disservice to Aarfa.
It rankles because what happens next is so important. Zafar really wants your attention here because the wrestling itself takes a backseat. Even the process. We see Sultan’s complete training over the course of a song, you blink and there is the Commonwealth Games and blink again for the Asian Games and next, he is posing with the Olympic gold.
But the second half is a different beast. We see an aged, unfit Sultan going through the motions with great unease. Sultan’s coach in Delhi, Randeep Hooda in a nice little cameo, isn’t one to mince words either. He routinely makes fun of Sultan’s physique, and informs him of his sure demise in the ring. Wherever he goes, he is made fun of. Zafar, by now, has managed to pump enough emotional energy into the film that you start rooting for Sultan. There was no time to root for him in the first half — he was winning everything before you could say gold and was also turning into someone despicable, for the impact he had had on Aarfa’s life and dreams, for the man he had become after winning. It makes you wonder if Salman Khan is trying to mirror his life somehow with these films but that would be an endless debate and far too simplistic. Ali Abbas Zafar is not a that good a director.
During a fight, with Aarfa still refusing to watch the tournament, we see Sultan struggling for the first time. Zafar tracks Aarfa from outside the house to her dining table, where the TV remote is conspicuously placed in front of her. We know what happens next, like we do with most of Sultan. A little bit of imagination could have pulled Sultan to greater heights, even as it remains a genre exercise.
The action is different. Zafar feels inspired in these portions, especially with the filming of the fights (Karan Malhotra can learn a thing or two). He keeps the routinely annoying commentary to a minimum and at a crucial point, mutes it. But the first fight is done with the kind of taste one might not expect from Zafar. As Sultan is finding out first-hand what it is like to be in a mixed martial arts ring, we see Aarfa back in Rewari, her back to the TV even as her father (the wrestling coach) and his students are glued to the screen. She is giving lessons to two kids, egging them on, giving instructions as they wrestle on their porch.
Zafar cuts between Sultan fighting in the ring and Aarfa coaching and cheering the two kids, her back still to the TV. Zafar continues this till the end. Both Sultan’s coach in Delhi and Aarfa never watch the bouts, they only hear.
Martial and marital discord, represented by the two people on the receiving end, knowing that their relationship will let them down, but at the same time unable to pull the plug.