Cast: Salman Khan, Anushka Sharma, Kumud Sharma, Amit Sadh
Director: Ali Abbas Zafar
Sultan is an over-wrought, over-blown, over-stretched sports saga. When it ended, I had moist eyes and a big grin. In wrestling terms, it's an over-sized Salman slam.
Sports movies operate with standard tropes – the protagonist is an unlikely underdog. There's always a set-piece training sequence where we see him or her transform, physically and emotionally. It all climaxes in an adrenalin-filled fight in which our hero first gets beat up but then he emerges triumphant teaching us all that no matter where the fight is – in a sporting arena or outside of it – you never give up. Grit and sweat will take you all the way.
Director and writer Ali Abbas Zafar uses this template but he cleverly layers it. The emotional core comes from a strong love story. Sultan only becomes a wrestler because he falls in love with one. Aarfa is a state champion. To equal her, he needs to be more than the local jester in their Haryanvi village. He is a natural at the sport but success brings with it a trauma so deep that their relationship splinters. And Sultan must slowly resurrect his life – both in the wrestling pit and outside it.
In addition to this relationship drama, Ali bungs in uplifting life lessons and unabashed dollops of patriotism. Sultan is a mud wrestler and the akhade ki mitti fuels his bullish strength. So much so that when Sultan goes to Delhi to fight foreigners in a mixed martial arts contest, he takes a sack-full of mitti with him. Early in the film, Sultan describes Aarfa as bahar se modern, andar se desi. It's the same sentiment that producer Aditya Chopra orchestrated so successfully in DDLJ and dozens of filmmakers, including Karan Johar, emulated for years after. It works here too.
Of course, all of this is done without an ounce of subtlety. Ali likes to spell out everything. Every emotion is underlined by music, close-ups and slow-motion. When all else fails, there's a voice-over. Yes, we were being shamelessly manipulated but I bought into it. On cue, I laughed and cried. I became wholly invested in the struggles of Sultan.
Which also speaks to the colossal screen strength of Salman Khan. I don't know how much of his body was real and how much was digitized but he is absolutely convincing as this all heart and brawn village boy. When he smiled and told Aarfa, madam main bada hi rare hoon, I believed him. It was also refreshing to see the heroine have a substantial role in a Salman Khan movie. Anushka Sharma matched him at every step. And Ali made sure to give her character real heft.
I'll warn you that at two hours and fifty minutes, Sultan is much too long. The music by Vishal and Shekhar is lilting but there are too many song breaks. And I was exhausted by the mixed martial arts fight sequences in the second half. All the other fighters were utterly lacking in personality and there is only that much I can take of muscled men tossing each other around.
But I left the film satiated, like I had eaten too much at a rich, many flavored feast.