First the blitzkrieg and then the anti-climax!
Salman Khan, on whom rides the fate, fortune and mood of a good part of Bollywood, was made India’s brand ambassador for Rio Olympics. Then there were teasers and trailers that showcased the best slo-mo shots of Sultan. And then came the clincher — his rape comment. The marketing plan leading up to Sultan was definitely stirring.
If trade reports are to be believed, the film, which released on Wednesday, is a “massive hit” already and may, given its “huge collections”, set another record of sorts to be beaten by this Khan or another.
Bollywood has been living in this cyclic reality year after year. As have the legions of fans and crazies who’ve built their online profiles, even real-life identities, on how much they love Bhai. Waging relentless wars in the belief that he can do no wrong, they are trapped in a mirage of their own making and would rather die than admit that Sultan, a bulky film heaving under its own weight, is a massive downer.
But I’m free. And I can say that Sultan is a mildly depressing, energy-sapping experience not just because 50-year-old Salman Khan is so portly and plodding in the action scenes that it’s difficult to buy into the conceit (or fantasy) of him being a legendary wrestler, but also because the film is sullen.
Sultan is not really excited about wrestling. It is more devoted to the decidedly impotent affair between the lead pair.
Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan opens with a quote from Sultan to tell us what wrestling is and isn’t.
Wrestling, apparently, is not a sport. It’s a war against what lies within. Hmmmm…
Cerebral, deep, ho-hum. So much for the excitement we had been cradling of watching Salman Khan roll about in mud in his teeny-weeny chaddies.
We are in Delhi where Aakash Oberoi (Amit Sadh), in a suit and a bad buzz-cut, is being told that the PRO Take-Down he conceived and organises isn’t working. But he pleads and gets one last chance, one more season to organise his WWF-style wrestling game where anything goes and only foreigners fight. But he doesn’t know how to make it work till one Gyan Singh Oberoi (Parikshit Sahni) utters the magic word: Sultan.
Not just because, Gyan Singh explains, Sultan fights to win, but also because nothing thrills Indian audiences more than watching a desi kick firangi butt.
Satya vachan. And I wonder. Was this a snarky comment on the film’s premise? A rare self-deprecating note?
We don’t have time to ponder because Aakash is on his way to a certain village in Rewari, Haryana, where Sultan, in a low-income group knitted sweater, is on his way to office on his scooter. En route he picks up kids and drops them to a ganna juice stall.
Big biceps, bigger heart.
Aakash reaches the Jal Nigam office and meets the Jal Nigam employee with a protruding tummy. Aakash isn’t so sure anymore. The paunch is a big put off. But before he can drive off, a tractor gets stuck in the mud and Sultan…
Now here’s the thing.
This wheel-stuck-in-mud scene, originally written by India’s best screenplay writer, Veda Vyasa, has been used so many times, but always without the impact or drama of the original one. It’s been reduced to a cliche, a boring device to impress the heroine or a future employer.
And that’s one big problem with Sultan.
Like Rocky 2, 3, 4, etc., etc., to Creed and more, Sultan is a genre film about an ageing sportsman who doesn’t believe in himself anymore, and yet must rise from the ashes, phoenix-like. These films come with their own tropes. And Sultan, in telling this typical story, doesn’t deviate from the script. It’s entirely predictable. Worse, it doesn’t create those stock yet exciting ripples where Sultan the wrestler can rise and grab us.
So Aakash, required to be suitably impressed, is suitably impressed and asks Sultan to take part in PRO Take-Down. But Sultan is not interested in wrestling. He’d rather collect money to right an old wrong.
Aakash is confused and it’s the job of Sultan’s BF, Govind (Anant Sharma), to tell us and Aakash the love ishtory that made Sultan a great wrestler, but also left a gehra ghav.
It all began eight years ago — the story of Sultan and Aarfa Hussain (Anushka Sharma).
A state champion and pehalwan ki chhori, Aarfa was focused and busy preparing for Olympics, packing in her slim frame and brusque personality rather cool social messaging about girls, careers, physical strength, fathers and daughters.
She bristled at the passes made by Sultan, the local kite-lootoing champion, proudly shoving her goals and achievements in his face. Chastened and in love, he decided to win her over with his prowess in the akhada.
And then on life was like a game of hop, skip and jump. Training, marriage, girl sacrificing her goals for his glory, Olympic gold, world championship and then the gehra ghav. The ghav now needs money and that takes Sultan to trainer Fateh Singh (Randeep Hooda) who first says, in true filmy style, “No. No. No. I can’t train him. Look at him,” and the very next second, “Achcha baba, yes. I’ll do it.”
Compared with the usual Salman Khan films, Sultan, written and directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, has a higher IQ. While its story is utterly predictable, and the film wantonly jumps from one thing to another without logic or explanation, it’s not a bad film.
Sultan has some sweet scenes and some of its dialogue are very funny. Though Salman’s attempt at Haryanvi diction is cute, thankfully the best dialogue are assigned to the fabulous Anant Sharma without whom the film would have been a bigger bore than it is.
And though there is a lot of fakery in the wrestling scenes, they are not tacky, but neither are they thrilling. Bigger problem is that the film itself is sullen.
One reason, of course, is the humdrum romance with Anushka Sulky. She’s a wet blanket. A grouchy killjoy. Standing apart and aloof, hands folded at her chest, chin protruding in a pouty disapproval of the goings on, she stands in frames screaming, “I’m so not buying Sultan’s story”. If she, who was paid to, hasn’t bought into the film’s fiction, how can we?
Of course, there’s a huge build-up in Sultan about Sultan. In the first five minutes, the name Sultan is mentioned so many times in such hyperbolic one-liners, with the film literally whooping every single time, that we are bracing ourselves for some mind-blowing wrestling. But when it comes, slapping its thighs and shoulders, it lands not on its feet but on its bum in an ungainly pratfall.
Though Sultan gets to beat and throw many men, including one Killing Machine, most of his opponents remain unknown entities. Because, remember, wrestling is all about the fight within; the bulging opponents don’t matter.
Sadly, the fight within is not projected. It remains hidden, notional almost because bringing it on screen requires serious acting chops. Salman Khan pondering his toond and weeping is hardly a war within. That’s a daily battle being waged in every bathroom, with every mirror.
The way the character of Sultan, played by Salman Khan, has been written is an act of misdirected bravery because it demands acting.
Salman, who can’t go beyond glaring, crying or acting cute, is out of his depth here because this is not his milieu. So he slouches.
So with little thrill in wrestling, hardly any compelling drama outside the akhada, Sultan feels morose.
But somewhere in between the dullness of Sultan sulks a decent film that could have been. We see its potential in brief glimpses of how powerful Salman could be if he’d mature as an actor.
Salman Khan can hold rage, welled-up emotions like few others, and now, with age-lines deepening, his three expressions will simply acquire meaning. That’s the magic of age. If only he could learn three more expressions and drop the sullen chaddies.