Movie Review: SULTAN (2016) – A By The Numbers Underdog Story
Sports movies have always been an issue in Bollywood in terms of both story structure and the technical execution of it all. So imagine my surprise when ‘Sultan’ is able to emulate the tried and tested Hollywood tropes of the underdog story and do it surprisingly well. ‘Sultan‘ works on many different levels, and the manner in which they’re handled makes you overlook the pretty large blemishes on an otherwise great movie.
Here is my Spoiler-Free Review of ‘Sultan‘, Bollywood’s first successful underdog story.
[schema type=”movie” url=”http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4832640/?ref_=nm_knf_i1″ name=”Sultan” description=”A romantic action drama based on the life of fictional Haryana based wrestler & mixed martial arts specialist Sultan Ali Khan.” director=”Ali Abbas Zafar” producer=”Aditya Chopra” actor_1=”Salman Khan” ]
The movie focuses on the redemption of an Olympic Gold Medal winning Indian Wrestler named Sultan. The story is about how a personal tragedy, mixed with his own arrogance, unravels Sultan’s life and the rest of the movie is his struggle to overcome it.
The film itself opens with the owner of a struggling Mixed Martial Arts league Aakash, (Amit Sadh) trying to keep its doors open, against building financial debt. Based on his father’s recommendation, Aakash wants to recruit Sultan Ali Khan, (Salman Khan) a former Olympic Gold medalist as his last hope. After meeting him however, Aakash discovers that Sultan is now a worn down pot bellied old man, living meagerly in a rural village of India. The first half of the movie then delves into flashbacks chronicling the rise and fall of Sultan, while the second half features his return to the ring against all odds, to redeem himself in his own eyes more so than the world.
There are elements of ‘Sultan‘ that make it counter intuitive to the typical Bollywood movie. Firstly, the fact that it’s an underdog story featuring Salman Khan in the lead role, is in and of itself a remarkable feat. Khan makes films where his characters rarely have any development or growth, and act as the epitome of the macho hero fantasy that fuels escapist audiences of the South Asian diaspora. So for him to be playing a role of a man who breaks down in frustrated tears at the sight of his own body, is moving and unexpected. It also reveals a rare glimpse of Khan’s acting capabilities that usually remain underused, underutilized or just plain irrelevant to the overall story.
The flashback sequences (as usual) showcase the love story between a young (ish) Sultan as he tries to woo a promising female wrestler Aarfa, (Anushka Sharma) only to be rejected by her due to his lack of direction and ambition in life. While most in a theater crowded by a Bollywood audience would cheer at the sight of the hero bursting onto the scene during a song and dance number to ogle his crush, this is the moment where I cheered!
Say what you will about writer / director Ali Abbas Zafar, (and I have) but the fact that ‘Sultan’ features a scene where the female leads calls out the male hero for essentially stalking her and assuming a romantic relationship simply because she gave him attention, despite his lack of career, life goals or even a desire to contribute to society— is all kinds of amazing! While this is at times undermined by some jokes at the expense of women by Sultan himself, I can chalk that up to the characters’ illiterate small time village mentality, which is actually consistent with his depiction throughout the film.
‘Sultan‘ has a very heavy and sometimes redundant message of the inner journey of a person. The story initially dismisses Sultan’s motivations to become a successful wrestler as being part off his plans to ‘get the girl’, but it also sometimes throws that in the face of Aarfa as well. The character motivations and depictions in that sense somehow feel confusing. It’s almost as if Zafar, who also wrote the story, wants the hero’s journey to be separate from the love story, but only when it suits the hero himself. Otherwise it’s all her fault. The theme however does circle back by the end of the story, where Sultan’s personal growth and his struggle are are depicted more as plot points in the story that act as allegories for his own ego, confidence and missteps in life.
Most Salman Khan movies feature some elements of cheesiness, one liners and over all eye roll worthy moments of– let’s call it– trite. But it’s a little surprising how that very same attempted inspirational and cliche’d tone work wonderfully under the backdrop of a sports movie, where all that is usually a foregone conclusion. Therefore it doesn’t come off as jarring as it usually would in the middle of a drama or comedy. ‘Sultan’ almost beat by beat emulates the usual formula of iconic films like ‘Rocky‘ and other Hollywood greats, where fighting the main characters’ inner demons are more important than what happens to them in the story.
This focus on the internal conflict, substantiating the role of the female character in the movie and creating a story that isn’t driven by what happens to the character, but rather by what the character has to do, is improvement by leaps and bounds in Bollywood storytelling. Compared to another recent MMA fighting movie from Bollywood, ‘Brothers‘, ‘Sultan’s character has clear cut motivations and a concise understanding of what he needs to do, but how he achieves it is the journey we see unfold on the screen.
The performance are absolutely on point. Sadh deserves a lot more roles in the industry. The meek and rural portrayal of Sadh’s in ‘Kai Po Che’ is immensely different than that of Aakash, the more western struggling business owner, whose fate is tied to that of the self confidence of a has been wrestler. Sadh shines in a role that doesn’t have much to do, but he definitely makes it his own. Anushka Sharma gives Aarfa her own brand of attitude and spark. It’s nothing we haven’t seen her do before, and while her character’s depiction was pretty progressive in ‘Sultan‘, I still wish that female characters in Salman Khan movies had more to do than just be a plot point.
From a technical point, ‘Sultan‘ has some of the best in-ring action choreography of any Bollywood movie. One of my biggest complaints with ‘Brothers‘ was about the camera work during the actual in-ring fighting scenes. Where as ‘Sultan’s action scenes were shot beautifully. Cinematographer Artur Zurawski keeps the shots fast paced, but the camera still pulls back enough to actually see the nuances of the moves, the impact of the violence and the actor’s expressions, without taking the audience out of the intensity of the moment. The shots also reflected the shots shown on TV screens in the film itself, as to keep consistency with what the audience of the movie sees, and what the audience in the movie sees.
‘Sultan‘ isn’t all without fault. There are still some very detrimental ideals of superheroism of the actor that bleeds into the story. But as I’ve mentioned in my Podcast discussing ‘Sultan‘ prior to release: it’s a step in the right direction if a ‘star’ such as Salman Khan can choose to set aside his real life status and ego, to play a character that is kind of pathetic for the sake of telling a moving story. While this isn’t anything special by the standards of other film industries, I’ll take the rare good strides in Bollywood where I can find them.