Sultan is on its face an excuse to show off all of Salman Khan’s bulging muscles in a sports movie, but underneath it packs an emotional punch of sacrifice, loss and redemption.
The performance feels more authentic than many of Salman’s recent films. If you are looking for the usual fast-quipping braggadocio, you won’t find it here. His quips are silenced by his love interest (Anushka Sharma) calling him stupid and directionless. And even with some deft moves in the ring, Sultan Ali Khan is not constantly talking about how he can beat down 10 men — and when he does, he usually fails at least briefly. Pride is in fact a large part of the emotional downfall from which he will eventually rebuild.
The tale opens with a man named Aakash Oberoi (Amit Sadh) and his failing Indian MMA league, which a wise old father promises can be saved by a desi fighter folks can root for. He knows just the guy, too. So the son sets off to a village in Haryana in search of Sultan, ex-world champ and Olympian wrestler, to learn of his life story and convince him to come out of retirement to singlehandedly save the league.
Of the two tales, the backstory is far more compelling. Sultan is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, installing satellite dishes and chasing falling kites around his village. Then he meets Aarfa, determined to be a wrestler at the Olympics. He falls hard, but she’s too ambitious to fall for just anyone. So Sultan sets out to become a wrestler himself, getting beat a few times by trained guys until he learns the hard way he actually needs to work for this goal.
But once he decides to knuckle down, you can guess how his trek goes — he gets to the state championship and wins, he gets to the Commonwealth Games and wins, he gets to the Olympics and wins. All the while he gets drunk on success as his personal life deteriorates. It is, after all, a sports movie.
For all of the background posters and short impassioned speeches about girl’s rights, Anushka Sharma’s Aarfa becomes less of a character after a point and simply a lost object for Sultan to pine over and seek to regain.
She enters the picture determined to wrestle her way to the Olympics and angry at every one of Sultan’s attempts to stand in the way. But then she happily agrees to marry Sultan after he wins one (one!) state championship and even more happily gives up her dreams of the Olympics for more traditional women’s roles. Even when she and Sultan are separated by the tragedy that makes him stop wrestling, she doesn’t go back to her dream and we don’t know why. Her dreams seem only important when they coincide with the hero’s, a very poor track for a character set up as so ambitious and angry about how daughters are treated. (And then of course even worse for matters is Salman’s by now infamous rape comment.)
This story on its own would have been compelling, but of course Sultan needs a way to win back Aarfa and get back to fighting, so then the MMA storyline kicks in.
Between Sultan and Brothers, there seems to be a new obsession for movies: proving that desi wrestlers, boxers and fighters can compete internationally in MMA. Why anyone feels this need that ruins otherwise fine stories is beyond me. Sultan’s fights made me wince less than Brothers, but they still pack a bone-crunching wallop with just enough drama and will-he-won’t-he in the end.
It’s the getting there that starts to feel bogged down. Randeep Hooda as a hipster underground fighting coach is a welcome touch, but who wants to watch another series of montages of Sultan training? A pretty unnecessary scene shows a press conference before his first fight with the opponent taunting him and the press asking about Sultan’s estranged wife, which really just seems ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as Sultan getting Internet famous for a viral video of him singing a love song for said estranged wife in a club. Then there’s the fact that stocky Salman is just much more easily believed slowly circling and brute strength slamming in a wrestling ring than he is dancing around in fast-paced MMA.
Still, ignoring these few late missteps, the movie is imminently watchable and emotional, a fight worth taking up.