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Casting Salman Khan in a film brings baggage and expectations along with his sizeable fan base. Those attendant factors are evident in the story of Sultan, written and directed by Ali Abbas Zafar and produced by Aditya Chopra. The title role requires Salman to play a part unlike the one he typically plays, but the movie never quite allows you to forget that you’re watching Salman Khan.
Rather than opening with Salman’s character Sultan, the film begins with the financial troubles of a failing Indian mixed martial arts league. The league founder, Aakash (Amit Sadh, who deserves more attention in Bollywood), lacked the foresight to include any Indian fighters in his Indian fighting league, and he gets six months to boost audience interest before his investors pull the plug.
Aakash’s dad weirdly touts the superiority of Indian moral values before recalling an impressive wrestler named Sultan he saw up north about eight years ago. Aakash heads to Haryana, only to find that his father’s legendary wrestler is now a pot-bellied forty-something working a desk job at the water department.
Sultan’s friend Govind (the reliable Anant Sharma) gives Aakash the scoop on why his buddy quit wrestling. The flashback showing Sultan’s sporting career and his romance with fellow wrestler Aarfa (Anushka Sharma) is the most typical Salman Khan portion of the film. Young Sultan is an aimless prankster who’s nevertheless beloved by all, with no marriage prospects even though he’s “pushing thirty.” He meets Aarfa, who smacks him around for bumping into her, and immediately falls in love with her beauty and spunky attitude. She says she’s not interested, but he pursues her anyway.
This flashback section — which takes up the first hour — is the worst part of the film. Salman is long past the age where he can convincingly play a brat. His attempts to keep up with the younger cast members either in a footrace or on the dance floor make him look slow and heavy. Sultan’s father’s grey hair can’t disguise the fact that the two men look more like brothers than father and son.
The flashback seems designed to reassure ardent Salman fans who prefer him in this avatar before the un-Salman-like plot turns to come. Salman’s celluloid enemies are almost always external, be they villains or just obstacles in his way. Salman’s characters are morally perfect from the get go, so no character growth is required to conquer said obstacles.
Not so in Sultan. Aarfa calls Sultan out for being a presumptuous deadbeat, prompting him to realize the he needs to work to win not only the respect of others, but also himself. He pours his heart into wrestling and becomes a champion, but success brings other pitfalls. Sultan fails to appreciate the difference between confidence and arrogance, resulting in a tragedy for which he is solely responsible.
When present-day Sultan joins Aakash’s MMA league, he does so with loftier goals than personal glory. Sultan’s presence by no means guarantees the league’s success. Not only is the former champ out of shape physically, he’s emotionally deflated as well. His new coach (Randeep Hooda) takes one look at Sultan’s haunted expression and says, “I don’t train dead people.”
But train him he does, in an entertaining montage that sets the stage for some cool fight scenes. All the fights in the MMA tournament look really good, a huge leap forward since last year’s disappointing Bollywood MMA flick Brothers.
Probably the single best bit of acting I’ve ever seen from Salman comes as a washed-up Sultan confronts the man he’s become. He stands shirtless in front of the mirror looking at his paunch, and tears fill his eyes. Frustrated and sobbing, he struggles to put his arm through the sleeve of his shirt, desperate to cover himself. It’s a scene that could not exist in most of Salman’s recent films, in which his character is always perfect, always the superman.
Zafar brings out the best in Salman on screen, yet the superstar’s off-screen persona is never fully out of mind while watching the film. When Aarfa’s father speaks with his daughter about Sultan and says: “Even God forgives one mistake,” one can’t help but wonder if this is also a plea to the audience on behalf of the real-life star (who couldn’t avoid trouble even while promoting this very movie).
Aarfa is one of the highlights of the film. She’s a fully realized character, with hopes and dreams independent of Sultan. When she makes compromises for the sake of their relationship, they feel like reasoned decisions and not the inevitable reduction of a woman’s roles to wife and/or mother. Sharma’s tough act is spot on.
Obviously, Sultan would have to be a progressive guy to fall for a woman who refuses to be sidelined because of her gender. So why, in multiple media sessions, does Sultan fall back on negative tropes about wives and girlfriends? He tells the press, “She’s not my wife yet, but she’s sucking my blood already,” and they laugh. Why the jokes at the expense of women?
The film also falls on its face when it comes to race. Two of Sultan’s MMA opponents are black, and both are introduced in English as being “owned” by someone, when the appropriate word should have been “sponsored.” One of the opponents is a capoeira expert, and as he leaps to execute a kick, Govinda says, “He leaps like an ape.” Sultan asks of the same fighter, “Is this gorilla or chimpanzee style?” Of all of the animals in the world that jump, Zafar could only think of monkeys to refer to a black character?
Sultan is otherwise a well-executed sports flick that would be enjoyable even with another actor in the lead role. Yet, for better or worse, the movie is all the more interesting for the way the main character’s life reflects upon that of the actor playing him.
I saw this at the GTC Pooler Stadium Cinemas 12 in Pooler, GA last night. They opened the film on Wednesday July 6th and it had just two screenings a day: at 5:45 PM then at 9:45 PM. The screening I attended – the 5:45 PM was a near sell out. The theater was packed. And from the number of people waiting in the theater lobby, there was a strong likelihood of the second screening being a full house as well.
I look forward to reading Kathy’s box-office report for Sultan.
And today – Sunday the 10th, the film is no longer showing. So I am glad I caught it yesterday. It is just a 10 minute drive to Pooler.
As for the film, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not a big fan of Salman Khan, but this time he was excellent. Anushka Sharma was also very good. The third sterling performance was by Randeep Hooda as Sultan’s trainer. Hooda is an actor I will reference as India’s version of Christian Bale.
As Kathy points out, there were a few glaring or troubling items in the script. Those being how Khan as Sultan described his wife to the media at a press conference. And how the black martial arts opponents were described.
While those remarks should have had either a different translation in the English subtitles, or been differently written in the Hindi script, the audience gave those lines much laughter.
The film worked for me despite being too long at 170 minutes, and having two (out of three) song and dance numbers that could have been left out.
“As Kathy points out, there were a few glaring or troubling items in the script. Those being how Khan as Sultan described his wife to the media at a press conference. And how the black martial arts opponents were described. While those remarks should have had either a different translation in the English subtitles, or been differently written in the Hindi script, the audience gave those lines much laughter.” — that’s disappointing, Mike. Odd, too, that the movie would disappear from the theater so quickly after selling out multiple shows. Glad you got to see it!
Well a look at the showtimes today and I see that Sultan is sill playing. Either I overlooked the screen schedule, or the theater had to make room for something else and didn’t screen Sultan on the day I checked.
Either way, the numbers you posted in your latest Box Office post do indicate that this film is making money and doing quite well.
The movie is excellent at the Indian box office.
And at the US box office, too: https://accessbollywood.net/2016/07/11/bollywood-box-office-july-8-10-2016/
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I watched Sultan since it came up on my Amazon Prime recommendations. I think your comment of internal not external enemies hits the nail on the head. I had been trying to figure out why it wasn’t like most of his films.
I agree both Randeep and Amit do great jobs, as does Anushka.
I took the ape comments a little differently than you did. I took it as the only word most people could come up with for an Amazon monkey. When people think of Brazil, they think of rainforests and monkeys. Monkeys have an agility that Sultan saw in his opponent. Most people are not going to come up with Howler Monkey or Spider Monkey. People don’t know that only New World monkeys have prehensile tails and can swing by them. I think to most people, primates are all pretty much the same, monkey, ape, gorilla, chimp, macaque. (I had to have a class on primate behavior to graduate college.)
Thanks for the kind words, Jill. As for the racist comments, they didn’t just use “ape,” they mentioned “gorillas” and “chimpanzees” as well. It doesn’t have anything to do with geography either (although I’m glad your primate studies class is still paying dividends). The simple rule is: just as anyone who is not black can never use the n-word, anyone who is not black can never refer to a black person as any kind of monkey or primate. Pick a different agile animal.
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