Sulthan | Karthi, Rashmika Mandanna

The first half-hour of Bakkiyaraj Kannan’s Sulthan — starring Karthi and Rashmika Mandanna — is pretty promising. (Let’s ignore the mandatory hero-intro song!) It’s like a mashup of Thevar Magan and the Mahabharata. From the latter, we get a bloodthirsty Kaurava-like clan that does all the rowdyism and goondaism in Chennai. Napoleon plays the Duryodhana equivalent, the leader — and Karthi (i.e., Sulthan) is the Kamal Haasan-equivalent from Thevar Magan. He does a posh job in a posh city and when he returns, he is disgusted by the bloodlust that’s such a part of his family. The mythical element runs right through: from Sathyan Sooryan’s shadow-rich cinematography to Sulthan’s birth, amidst rain and bloodshed. And around the thirty-minute mark, we get the “knot”: what Sulthan has to do, what his mission is. It’s perfectly placed.

But soon, we see that the writer-director doesn’t trust his premise. He wants to keep throwing in more, more, more. There’s a terrific idea about rivalry within Karthi’s clan, and that would have been enough “villainy” to carry the story forward. But we get a second villain in Salem and a third villain who’s one of those suited-booted corporate types always stalking the Tamil multiplexes. In a very ordinary film, you’d sigh and accept all this without batting an eyelid because that very ordinary film is just another excuse for hero-worship. But when you see potential and when this potential is not fully exploited…

 I liked some writing decisions. I liked that the hero has to earn the heroine’s trust and respect before he earns her love. I liked that the inevitable agriculture angle is brought in a bit organically, with a Seven Samurai-like situation. I liked that Sulthan’s fighting skills don’t erupt Just Because He Is A Mass Hero but because he has been trained by his uncles as a child. But the film isn’t consistent and it becomes increasingly generic. I’ll leave you with this interval moment. Sulthan has just won over the bad guys. The people around him are triumphant. And yet, all he can look at is his blood-stained hand. The violence of his family runs through him, too. Is it too much to expect a “mass movie” to follow through with these emotional beats? Perhaps so! But that’s why Sulthan remains a constant reminder of what it could have been: so much more than just “watchable”.

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