It is Eid and we have Salman Khan returning with Sultan, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. Sultan is about, well, Sultan Ali Khan (Salman Khan) a wrestler from Haryana. Zafar opens with a mixed martial arts tournament being lampooned for its falling ratings and everything more or less follows from thereon. We see Sultan is working at the Water Works Department, a Monopoly card he was presented with when he won the Olympic Gold for India. This instance also leads to a lot of water works in his personal life but more on that later. But there is nothing in his current life that points to him being an Olympian. He lives in a one room home, makes tea for himself, locks the door and leaves for office in a scooter in need of a refueling. On the way, he picks up school kids, buys them sugarcane juice and at work, he collects donations for reasons unknown and helps tractors get off potholes. An Olympic Gold winner is doing all this instead of telling his story to a ghost writer and signing deals with publishing houses.
We get the story from Govind, Sultan’s friend. Sultan at its heart has two strands running together. There is the familiar champion of yore making one last return to the field. There is another endless arm wrestling bout he is fighting with himself, for his love, seeking a redemptive arc in his personal life. Zafar therefore knows how important the love story is to the larger film. He gets a lot of things right around it. Aarfa (Anushka Sharma) is also a wrestler, in fact a senior to Sultan by all counts in that regard. Sultan courts her in some irresponsible ways at first and gets rightly rapped on the knuckles. It stuns Sultan to find out that Aarfa is nothing like how he imagined and this is required for Sultan’s first redemptive arc, his encounter with wrestling as a sport. How all this ends is one of the biggest problems with the film. Sultan is 170 minutes long but it still feels like this is the part Zafar could have spent more time with. Having done all the foreplay right, Zafar finishes it off a little prematurely, a great disservice to Aarfa. It rankles because what happens next is so important to the rest of the film. Zafar really wants your attention here because the wrestling itself takes a backseat. Even the process. We see Sultan’s complete training over the course of a song, you blink and there is Commonwealth Games and blink again for the Asian Games and next he is posing with the Olympic gold.
But the second half is a different beast. We see an aged, unfit Sultan going through the motions with great unease. Sultan’s coach in Delhi, Randeep Hooda in a nice little cameo, isn’t one to mince words either. He routinely makes fun of Sultan’s physique, informs him of his sure demise in the ring, Wherever he goes, he is made fun of for his physique and how his best years are behind him and mixed martial arts is not really for him. Zafar, by this moment, has managed to pump enough emotional energy into the film that you start rooting for Sultan. There was no time to root for him in the first half – he was winning everything before you could say gold and he was also turning into someone despicable, for the impact he had had on Aarfa’s life and dreams, for the man he had become after winning. It makes you wonder if Salman Khan is trying to mirror his life somehow with these films but that would be an endless debate and far too simplistic.
Ali Abbas Zafar is not a that good a director. During a fight, with Aarfa still refusing to watch the tournament, we see Sultan struggling in the tournament for the first time. Zafar tracks Aarfa from outside the house to her dining table where the TV remote is conspicuously placed in front of her. We know what happens next, like we do with most of Sultan. A little bit of imagination could have pulled Sultan to greater heights, even as it still remains a genre exercise. The action is different. Zafar feels inspired in these portions, especially with the filming of the fights (Karan Malhotra, who made Brothers last year can learn a thing or two). He keeps the routinely annoying commentary to a minimum and at a crucial point, completely mutes it. But the first fight is done with the kind of taste one might not expect from Zafar. As Sultan is finding out first hand what it is like to be inside a mixed martial arts ring, we see Aarfa back in Rewari, her back to the television even as her father (the wrestling coach) and his students are glued to the screen. She is giving lessons to two kids, egging them on, giving them instructions as they wrestle in their porch. Zafar cuts between Sultan fighting in the ring and Aarfa coaching and cheering the two kids, her back still to the TV. Zafar continues this till the very end. Both Sultan’s coach in Delhi and Aarfa never watch the bouts, they only hear. Martial and marital discord, represented by the two people on the receiving end of those, knowing that their relationship will let them down but at the same time unable to pull the plug.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)