As you step into the cinema hall for a Salman Khan movie, you’re very clear that no matter how ostensibly deep the subject matter is being marketed as, all you’ll get is skim-the-surface entertainment and a shooting-the-breeze couple of hours in the hall. That was before the 2014 release Kick. To me, that enterprise was insufferable and a complete magnum opus in cinematic disaster. Which also meant that I sub-consciously disavowed Salman Khan’s movie outings thenceforth. What made me crawl out of my shell of trepidation for his latest venture, Sultan, I cannot say. What I can vouch for is this – director-writer Ali Abbas Zafar and screenplay writer Aditya Chopra’s effort have handed out some big life lessons to me, chicken soup, palak soup, and other varieties of this preparation being used as self-help aides, forsooth! (A quick appraisal on the director and a pat on self’s back for bravery – he of the funny-as-syphilis Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and the as-pointless-as-the-Bangalore-municipal-corporation Gunday infamy). The biggest lesson of all is this – life is a cliché, and there’s no point fighting this vexatious situation.
So, inhale deeply (preferably just the air) and add these lessons to your aide-memoire or soup of choice and watch your wisdom grow by leaps and pounds.
A sportsman’s life is the X-Y chart with flashback:
Sultan treads the path that Rocky charted; that the rather gritty Bhaag Milkha Bhaag plotted; and even the in-your-face-product placemat, but a bravo story and lead performance by Priyanka Chopra punched out in Mary Kom. But that’s life isn’t it? So the director and screenplay writer do a glass-tracing of these graphs on an expensive, shiny graph sheet and come up with this plot of a goofy, gold-hearted citizen of Buroli. Named Sultan Ali Khan (Salman Khan), life’s all jhinga la la (wait, wrong DTH jingle) for him until he falls in love with Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), whose only aspiration is to get India an Olympics gold medal in wrestling. Aiding her in this is her trainer father, Bartak (Kumud Mishra). Love’s one-sided and Sultan realizes that the only way for Aarfa to have feelings for him is if he becomes a wrestler as well. Here begins the chart that plots the rise of Sultan in the wrestling arena, as he dipsy doodles his way to the medals list and Aarfa’s malleable heart. The plotline charts the rise and rise of the wrestler along with his beloved, as they both conquer the world of wrestling. There’s then the predictable fall and dip, as Sultan plumbs the depth of despair and then is resurrected by desperate businessman and founder of a new sport in India. (Brothers, anyone?) The businessman, Aakash (Amit Sadh) gets in a trainer for Sultan, a sophisticated gym-owner played by Randeep Hooda. You can pin the plot in your mind with an accuracy and precision that would make Swiss watch makers proud, and that’s not exactly exciting times for life in a cinema hall. You say, “Flashback!” and ten minutes later, there it is. Bejan Daruwala would be proud, Ganesha says.
No matter how ambitious the woman, she throws up and throws it all away:
Anushka Sharma’s is a feisty and focused character. Good for her, you applaud in the audio track of your mind. And the actress plays it with some aplomb as well. And then, there’s that scene where she discovers she’s pregnant. And in one, single take that makes you do a double take, she throws her ambition of going to the Olympics away, and lovingly looks at her darling Sultan prancing and celebrating the good news. I’m no lingerie burning feminist, but Sultan taught me another life-cringing cliché – the woman will sacrifice everything, including her career aspirations to keep her man happy. In another ghastly decision, she decides she and her hapless father will train our man for the Olympics. Put that in your chicken soup and gag.
The hero can always play an adorable love-struck goof:
There was Salman in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. He was gratingly funny, and absolutely killed it in the serenading scenes. Then there is Sultan. Salman peeps through props and follows Anushka, and he can do it because he’s the hero. You swallow pinches of iodized salt as someone calls him a thirty-year old, because all you see is a tired, jaded actor trying to pump in the zest of a chocolate-faced hero. (There’s a very unfunny scene where Sultan convinces Aarfa’s father that he’s nimble and allows himself to be chased by other wrestlers. The director resorts to the fast-motion photography technique to show how fast Sultan can be – very smartly wrapping supposed comedy to mask the actor’s lumbering movements.) Be nimble and learn this cliché.
Profound epiphany is but a one-liner:
The director and writers make the characters mouth the homily. Sultan realizes it himself. And he says as much – the fight of a wrestler is within, he fights the demons within and emerges a winner without. If you think the movie explores this dark side and takes you into the recesses of the wrestler’s troubled mind, suck on your dream-pipe. Blockbusters have no time for such nonsense. Epiphany is a single line in the line-up of plot-busters and the intensity is reserved only for the bash-ups later. Everything else is a waste of time. You wish you’d seen more of the ego that brings the eponymous character down. You wish you’d see the internal struggle of the character, and hope some of it reflects on the actor’s real life struggles with truth as well. You wish you’d kick yourself every time you hoped.
The hero is never mortified:
Here’s where the real and reel lives merge infuriatingly. No matter what the scene, Sultan never takes the onus – he is the wronged one, and he has the beard and paunch to prove it. Even when he does apologize to Aarfa/Anushka, Sultan/Salman says it with the sincerity of an uriah heep. In a tellingly ironical twist and dialogue, Sultan says, “There’s a thin line separating arrogance and self-confidence.” That’s as close to a confession as Sultan/Salman will ever make. Onscreen and off it.
The character actors are the baker’s dozen:
Kumud Mishra, Amit Sadh, and especially Anant Vidhaat (as Govind, Sultan’s friend) are superb and hold the movie together, especially in the first half, when Salman is in flashback mode, looking quite distant, disinterested, going through the motions of being a hero, minus his trademark dabangg. Randeep Hooda joins in post-interval, and adds an element of sophistication and grit. His is a very predictable role, but to his credit, he does a commendable job of adding a seen-before-but-effective dimension. This is a cliché that actually saves the movie for the most part.
Anushka kills it in one scene:
This is a happy cliché. And Anushka, despite everything else, is superb in the hospital scene, where she tells the smugly injured Sultan, “We are sports persons. We don’t give up.” And then, a tear rolls down one eye, and so very naturally, so very beautifully, she wipes it off with her stole. That is simply a class act.
Gladiator sports never fail to rouse us:
Blame it on the Romans, but if there’s one thing that gets us pumping blood, it’s a man versus man sport. And so it is with Sultan. The direction, action choreography by Larnell Stovall, and the audience get all fired up for the climactic fights (that chart the X-Y graph on the upward redemption swing for Sultan). And truly, something suddenly clicks here, the coin drops into the slot and you get a gripping final act. All the other clichés happen because the director focuses on getting this segment right. The fight scenes pack in such a wallop, with Salman looking at home in the ring, all his arduous training for the movie kicking in, the audience in my cinema hall awoke all of a sudden, and there was cheering, whistling, clapping and hooting. (I felt like letting one go myself.) There are clichés here as well – Sultan will get up, no matter how many bones out of place, because he sees Aarfa in the audience. So, for all those of you who guffawed when Ashok Kumar recovered from a heart attack and marched away to glory in Manoj Kumar’s unintentionally comic classic, Clerk, fie on you.
One song moves you:
Not always true, but I’m happy this cliché worked here. Vishal Shekhar’s soundtrack is pretty energetic and adds a much needed zippiness to the training sessions. The title song, sung by Sukhwinder, is all energy, thanks in no small measure to the singer, who can negotiate any twist and turn in the tune with the ease of flowing water. But the song that truly moves you, and actually adds some last-minute magic to the until-then spark-less and staid chemistry between the lead pair, is the absolutely wonderful Jag Ghoomeya, sung with some verve and feeling by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (though I’d have preferred some other singer – even the very affable and likeable voice of Shekhar.) The song is reprised during the end-credits by the Neha Bhasin version, that’s equally moving. And it is in the male version that you see the only beautiful moment between Sultan and Aarfa – when Anushka attempts the weird spin and thrust dance by Salman, and he pecks her forehead affectionately. That’s the power of effective music.
Box-office and pressure cooker sales are all that matter:
Do we even need to go here? If you thought the scene where the pressure cooker sales (of the company sponsoring Sultan in the ring) shoot up was a cliché, how about this one? No matter what you say or think, the ringing of cash at the box-office is all that matters. And this is the one immutable cliché.
Watch the trailer of Sultan here: