The writer of Sultan repeatedly evokes a beast of burden by way of an analogy for the film’s simple-minded but irrepressible protagonist.
This guy, Sultan Ali Khan of Rewari district’s Buroli village, is indeed a cussed customer who soldiers on against all odds to prove his worth to himself, his girlfriend/wife and the whole wide world. So, what’s new?
What’s new is that Sultan casts Salman Khan as a rugged son-of-the-soil wrestler who weathers many a deadly blow on his heart and his body.
When the chips are down, Sultan’s wife Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), a fellow wrestler and daughter of his first coach Barkat Hussain (Kumud Mishra), reminds him: “We are sportsmen, we never give up.”
This film takes the dictum a bit too literally. It refuses to give up – it goes on and on to drive home the point about the greatness of its ageing grappler-hero.
In one early scene, the wheel of a tractor gets stuck in a deep puddle outside the office where retired Olympic and world champion Sultan does a lowly clerical job.
The hero is summoned to the spot and he pulls the vehicle out without batting an eyelid. That is where his correlation to a bull begins.
Sports entrepreneur Akash Oberoi (Amit Sadh), owner of the wrestling franchise Pro Take-Down who has arrived from Delhi, is impressed enough with the deed to rope in Sultan as the floundering event’s only Indian fighter.
At another point, having decided to become a wrestled to prove the doubting heroine wrong, Sultan yokes himself to a plough and tills a plot of land.
It is a part of a punishing training regimen that includes trying to outrun a diesel locomotive. There are no half measures for this bloke.
Later, when he is on the comeback trail after a self-imposed hiatus, Sultan’s MMA coach Fateh Singh (Randeep Hooda) advises him to aspire to be an “unbreakable bull”. When Sultan does become one, the coach exults: “Poora saand (bull) hai.”
Mercifully, Sultan isn’t all bull. But as a sports film, it does not quite take the genre by the horns and deliver a product unsullied by the conventions of a Bollywood potboiler.
One of Sultan Ali Khan’s key takeaways from the ring is that wrestling isn’t just a sport. It is a bout that one fights with life.
It takes an awful amount of time and endless bone-crunching for that realization to dawn upon him.
From the audience’s point of view, the cliched life lessons that the film offers are borderline passable. The length of the film – 170 minutes – isn’t.
Sultan, written and directed by Abbas Ali Zafar, may have been designed to pull Salman Khan away from his comfort zone, but, in the ultimate analysis, it is just another bloated affair that rides on the bluster and bombast typical of a film featuring the superstar.
Salman Khan is after all a genre unto himself. It matters little whether he is in a sports drama or in a mish-mash of flighty romance and high-voltage action – Sultan is a bit of both.
In the end, Sultan remains a Salman Khan vehicle, pure and simple, gift-wrapped for his constituency of filmgoers.
So those that manage to set aside the misgivings about the excesses that come with this form of storytelling might actually enjoy the film, at least some parts of it.
Like when the past-his-prime Sultan slouches before a mirror and inspects his paunch and then struggles to get into a slim-fit shirt.
Or when, in a dargah, he launches into a mournful monologue to appeal to his estranged wife to let bygones be bygones…
Or even when he does his limited dance steps with exactly the kind of abandon that endears him to his fans.
Sultan is Salman Khan’s second collaboration with Yash Raj Films, but it does not yield anything startlingly unusual.
On his part, the director (whose previous two ventures were both mounted for YRF) is unable to add anything to the mix that could disguise the superstar’s mannerisms.
Salman might be playing a Haryanvi wrestler who spends a great deal of his time honing his grappling skills in an akhada, but realism is throughout pinned to the mat by the need to induce the masses in the most obvious sorts of ways.
Sultan is a case of a superstar vehicle latching on to the current trend of sports films but failing to achieve the requisite grounding in the rough and tumble of the wrestling pits to evolve into a convincing drama.
Whatever heft that Sultan has stems from Salman’s star power and the impressively mounted wrestling and mixed martial arts sequences.
But for the sudden twist of fate that tears the hero and his wife apart at the halfway point, the story is as trite as they come, the treatment is pedestrian, and the flashy filming style errs on the side of the superfluous.
The wrestling bouts, at the outset, are Olympic style. Then they get rougher as a “chutney of martial arts” – kick boxing, capoeira and taekwondo, among others – is thrown in to spice up the action.
Salman, who kicks up a lot of dust in bringing Sultan Ali Khan alive, sports a cat-that-got-the-cream look all through the film. It is heightened by a roll of the moustache every time he triumphs over an opponent.
Anushka, Amit Sadh, Anant Vidhaat (as Sultan’s friend Govind) and Kumud Mishra make their presence felt in no uncertain terms. In a special appearance, Randeep Hooda makes all the right moves.
But Sultan is a Salman Khan film made solely for the superstar’s fans. It has everything to please its target audience. It has megahit written all over it.