(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)
The distinguishing feature in Salman Khan’s last two Eid releases - “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” in 2015 and this year’s “Sultan” - is that there are no bad guys. The conflict in both these films does not come from the quintessential Bollywood villain but from existential issues.
Khan, though, is still beating up people to a pulp in “Sultan” and breaking bones with alarming regularity. He plays a wrestler, a plot point that must have been pencilled in just so it could contribute to the high-octane action quotient that is a known part of Khan’s brand of blockbusters.
When we first meet Sultan, he is a broken man - working in a ramshackle government office, riding a rickety bike and waiting for a glimpse of his lady love Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), who looks through him every time she sees him. There’s a history there, we are told - the greatest love story the village has known that went horribly wrong. Through a series of flashbacks, we meet a younger Sultan who is touching 30 (a difference of 20 years from Khan’s age in real life), a happy-go-lucky DTH dealer who falls hook, line, and sinker for Aarfa, a wiry young wrestler who is driven, ambitious and determined to win an Olympic gold medal for India.
Blinded by love and convinced that the only way he can win over Aarfa is by learning to wrestle, Sultan trains hard. After a particularly harsh talk-down from her about his lack of purpose, he turns into a world-beating wrestler almost overnight.
Medals in international competitions are hard to come by, but Sultan pockets them like they were loose change and even wins an Olympic gold medal to be crowned “King of the Ring”. When it all goes bust, Sultan goes into hiding, only to be resurrected by Akash Oberoi (Amit Sadh), a promoter who runs a pro-wrestling league and is looking for a “son of the soil” hero to save his venture from failing. The second half of this 170-minute film is full of well-shot fight sequences that give Khan ample opportunity to flex his muscles.
“Sultan” works because director Ali Abbas Zafar injects enough wry humour into the proceedings and eschews melodrama. Sultan and Aarfa’s romance is low-key and the interactions between them are the only time where Khan is forced to bring out his deeply hidden and limited acting talents.
Sharma is luminescent as Aarfa and tries her best to inject some chemistry into her romance with Khan. Randeep Hooda, in a brief role as a fighting coach is the perfect foil to Khan’s often sardonic demeanour, and Anant Sharma shines as Govind, Sultan’s sidekick and long-time friend.
The bad guys may be missing, but “Sultan” has everything else that makes for a satisfying Bollywood film.