Watching a Salman Khan film today reminds me of watching Woody Allen’s films in the 1990s, when the sixty-something actor/director kept pairing himself with decades-younger actresses like Elisabeth Shue and Julia Roberts. I remember thinking: Dude, I’m trying to look at this as just a movie, without bringing your off-screen story in. But do you have to keep rubbing it in? But that’s part of the trashy, tabloidy allure of the movies. It’s impossible to separate Sultan from Salman, Salman from Sultan. It isn’t just that the six-lettered, two-syllabled names roll off the tongue the same way. It’s also that we’re so aware of being worked over in order to buy an image: the innocent with such a “saaf dil” that “Jo man mein aata hai, keh deta hoon.” Sultan is speaking to Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), but isn’t he really addressing the National Commission for Women? The knowledge that Sultan’s screenplay was written long before the NCW decided to haul him up for his remark about rape does little to dispel these resonances.
Like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan – the story of a wrestler – feels as much a movie as a gargantuan PR exercise for its gargantuan star. Sultan/Salman is the small-town chhora (from Rewari, Haryana) who reads Hindi newspapers, and who keeps searching for the right word when speaking in English (“woh kya kehte hain angrezi mein?” is a constant refrain). He gives school-going children a lift on his tired, old, incapable-of-running-over-anyone scooter (compare this to the gleaming, speedy SUV a fat-cat city slicker like Akash, played by Amit Sadh, drives). Sultan’s best friend is a Hindu (Govind, played by a delightful Anant Sharma), and he’s such a peace-lover that he wants to name his son… Aman. (Had he had a daughter, maybe she’d be called Shanti?) Sultan is, quite literally, a son of the soil – the endlessly repeated (and rousing) title song suggests that the dust of small-town India courses through his veins (“khoon tere mitti, mitti tere khoon”). Hence the non-MNC-ness of the brands that pop up in his wrestling career: Escort tractors, Kukreja pressure cookers. I was especially intrigued by two scenes. The first time we see Sultan, it’s during a wrestling match, and the crowds screaming his name are waving saffron and green flags. A nod to the star’s pan-Indian, pan-religious popularity? And then, this – a scene where a father says his son wants to change his name to Sultan (instead of adopting, say, a film star’s name), because unlike Sultan, film stars are fake. Translation: forget whatever happens off-screen, forget the star, forget Salman. Only what’s on screen is real, only Sultan is real.
With that in mind, I must say I rather enjoyed Sultan, which has been directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Bajrangi Bhaijaan. I like how these films – and only Salman Khan seems to be making them – set out on a path we now call “old-fashioned storytelling” and, along the way, find a few new things to do, show, say. Sultan opens with Akash mulling over the future of his Mixed Martial Arts venture, called Pro Takedown. (MMA seems to be all the rage among Hindi filmmakers these days. Also see Brothers and Do Lafzon Ki Kahani.) Things are not going well, and Akash’s father (Parikshat Sahni) tells him that the stadiums are empty because there is no desi connect. “Jo bhi cheez imported ho, woh tumhe cool lagta hai,” he says, and suggests a change: Sultan. An akhara-honed Indian pehelwan taking on gym-trained Western fighters – it’s Naya Daur all over again. With a splash of Dushman. In order to atone for a tragedy he inadvertently caused, Sultan has to do something for the society at large. And the story of the underdog fighter dragged out of retirement is classic Hollywood. Sultan is like those films whose posters scream “His greatest fight was outside the ring.” There’s another quote, at the very beginning: Wrestling isn’t a sport. It’s about fighting what lies within. Opening lines are typically words of wisdom from legends, so who do you think said this? Dara Singh? Sushil Kumar? No, it’s Sultan himself. Even before we’ve seen a frame of the film, we’re given a glimpse of his legendariness.
What’s interesting, what keeps the film ticking, is Sultan’s reason for retirement – and this has to do with Aarfa. Anushka Sharma seems to have made a career of playing strong women (or at least, strongly depicted women) in hero-worshipping star vehicles – Sultan is no different. She’s a wrestler too, and her “maleness” is constantly underscored. We find out that her father (the wonderful Kumud Mishra), who runs an akhara, brought her up like a son, and she wants to prove a point about women – especially women from this region. She’s aggressive. She says she’ll knock Sultan’s teeth out if he continues to pursue her. At first, Sultan is your average small-town eve-teaser, who runs a cable-TV business. At a wedding, when he hears Aarfa ask the sound guy to dial up the bass, he launches into the song, Baby ko bass pasand hai – only he means “base,” and he keeps wiggling his bottom to show her what he means. But eventually, Aarfa sees that Sultan is not a creep, merely an innocent. (Could Salman Khan be anything else?) She tells him she doesn’t want to get married because she dreams of winning an Olympic gold. “Let’s be friends,” she says, and begins to hang out with him. But he goes around telling people that she’s his girlfriend. When she finds out, she’s mad. She slaps him, makes him reconsider his life, makes him decide to be a wrestler. Without Aarfa, Sultan would never have found his calling, found fame.
And that’s why the film’s finest stretch centres not on Sultan’s fight, but Aarfa’s. They marry, and for a second I was worried that she’d transform into his cheerleader at international events. But to give the film credit, she doesn’t give up wrestling. She travels the world with him, wins as many medals. But when she becomes pregnant, Sultan begins to resemble a Hindi-heartland version of the stories about career-oriented women in big cities. That line (Wrestling isn’t a sport. It’s about fighting what lies within.) is now hers. It’s now her fight. She has to take a call. She decides to have the baby, knowing what this means to her Olympic-sized dreams. Anushka Sharma is so good (she does brittleness very well), she makes us sense emotions that the script doesn’t spell out: resentment, perhaps even jealousy. This man wouldn’t be here without her… And yet, her dream is dust, while his star keeps rising. This constant reminder of her “femaleness” makes her snap. They split up. And then she faces a different kind of fight. Having made up her mind to avoid him, she has to fight seeing his fights on TV. Her refusal – till the end – to look directly at a TV set telecasting Sultan’s fights is one of Zafar’s sweetest touches.
I wish Aarfa had had a bigger role in the second half as well, when the story zooms in on Sultan’s resurrection and redemption, but even the little we get of her keeps underlining her importance in the scheme of things. There are two great scenes with Sultan and Aarfa, one at a dargah, one at a hospital – I was surprised at how well Zafar modulated the melodrama. Yash Raj has become a specialist in what could be termed the “muted melodrama” (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Jab Tak Hai Jaan) – the emotions roil underneath, but the surface is relatively calm. Even the big masala moments – like Sultan demonstrating his Sultan-ness by pushing a tractor out of a rut on the road – are staged in a surprisingly low-key manner. (We saw this in Bajrangi Bhaijaan as well.) These films are proof that stories never get old as long as the telling feels new. Sultan runs 170 minutes, and I was never bored. Even if the big picture is a giant cliché, a lot of little things are done right. The supporting cast is excellent (Randeep Hooda, as Sultan’s coach, continues where he left off in Do Lafzon Ki Kahani). The fights – at least to an MMA non-fan like me – are excitingly choreographed. And the editing is so smooth that we don’t sense cuts so much as a flow. Even in the stillest of moments, the film seems to be in constant motion.
Like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan is a gentle, kind film. When the Westernised Akash is put in his place, it’s with the softest rap on the knuckles. (Akash is not a bad guy, just a hotshot a little too set in his aggressive, big-city ways.) And when Sultan gets too big for his boots, his comeuppance is served without a side of thunder and lightning – and with the genial reminder that a girl child is as valuable as a boy. There are, in other words, no real villains – though some may point to the star himself, the kind of person Salman is outside of the screens playing Sultan. As with Sunjay Dutt, I get the feeling that real-life troubles have had a part to play in the actor’s performances. Salman is a graver presence on screen. He projects maturity, even melancholy. He’s terrific in a scene where he appraises his out-of-shape physique and breaks down. I certainly did not anticipate the day I’d be talking about this actor’s acting. It’s a real conundrum. The worse he behaves off-screen, the better his films seem to get.
- Bajrangi Bhaijaan = see here
- “saaf dil” = pure heart
- “Jo man mein aata hai, keh deta hoon” = I blurt out whatever comes to mind
- chhora = young man
- “woh kya kehte hain angrezi mein?” = What do they call it in English?
- “khoon tere mitti, mitti tere khoon” = this soil is your blood
- Brothers = see here
- “Jo bhi cheez imported ho, woh tumhe cool lagta hai” = If something’s imported, you think it’s cool.
- Naya Daur = see here
- Dushman = see here
- akhara = see here
- dargah = see here
- Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi = see here
- Jab Tak Hai Jaan = see here
- Do Lafzon Ki Kahani = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.