Starring: Salman Khan, Anushka Sharma, Amit Sadh, Anant Sharma and others.
Dir by Ali Abbas Zafar
It must be a mix of luck and careful sifting of scripts that makes Salman Khan pick films that take him to bigger heights of stardom, one blockbuster at a time. There is also some astute image-building: The star is attempting to outstrip his irresponsible child-man picture and emerge as a grown-up. In Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan, he actually plays ages 30 to 40, with more emotional heft than he has in his recent films. And it is only Salman Khan’s superstardom that lifts the film—a collection of every sports movie cliche possible—several rungs higher. Take him out and the film would collapse.
Zafar realises that there is nothing new in the underdog-to-winner story, so instead of concentrating on the ‘what’, he concentrates on the ‘how’. This is where the film scores. It is set in rural Haryana, and the characters use the local dialect. The much-reported-on phenomenon of Haryana women turning into champion wrestlers (the true story of the Phogat sisters will be told in Aamir Khan starrer Dangal) is used effectively.
When the good-for-nothing Sultan (Salman) bumps into Aarfa’s (Anushka) bike while he is chasing kites, he raises a fist to smack the rider, only to get helmet-whipped and rebuked. It’s love at first sight, but Aarfa is a wrestling champ, and publicly berates Sultan for his lack of a goal and rejects him. (She even asks him why, at his age, he isn’t married—a little chuckle at the expense of Bollywood’s oldest bachelor.) To impress her, he picks up the ropes of wrestling from Aarfa’s father (Kumud Mishra), a coach, and starts winning tournaments. Aarfa agrees to marry him, and, in a nice touch, both of them go on a medal-winning spree.
Then, tragedy strikes and they part—a section involving gender roles, arrogance and resentment, regret and grief that could have been better. The film also starts losing its grip. Sultan’s comeback into a new, more aggressive kind of spectator sport follows the rut—a variety of foreign fighters, tougher obstacles. The homily repeated often is that the fight is within a man; he doesn’t fight the opponent, he fights himself.
Zafar polishes his star’s shine. There’s strong support from Anushka Sharma, Anant Sharma as Sultan’s loyal friend, Amit Sadh as a sports promoter and Randeep Hooda as his trainer. Add to this hit music and an appealing son-of-the-soil rhetoric. Sultan has got all fan bases covered.