2016-07-25

Movie Review: Sultan

Sultan, starring Anushka Sharma and Salman Khan
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Sultan is possibly one of the more inexplicable Hindi movies I've ever seen.

Ostensibly, the movie tells the story of an Indian mixed martial arts league that is failing to sell tickets; so, its founder, Aakash Oberoi sets out to recruit a retired Indian Olympic wrestler to compete in the league, in an attempt to spark more interest from Indians. It's essentially a play toward nationalism, an attempt to give Indian spectators a home-grown "local boy" to cheer for in the league.

What Oberoi discovers when he meets the retired wrestler, Sultan Ali Khan, is that Khan has refused to ever enter the ring again, and upon probing Khan's childhood friend Govind, Oberoi learns the story of why Khan will never wrestle again.

This story makes up the first half of the movie, and it is build from the typical Bollywood playbook. If you've seen a few Bollywood films, you probably already know how it goes: a young man who has extended his youth too far into adulthood (to the dismay of his parents) meets a beautiful and talented young woman who inspires him to make something of himself. In winning her hand, he also makes his family and his country proud, follows his dreams, achieves fame and fortune, but still has not yet managed to learn humility. In an act of arrogance, he loses the girl, falls from national grace, and pursues self-exile so that he may engage in self-flagellation.

And, true to the Bollywood playbook, Sultan tells the rest of the cliched story in the second half of the movie, offering the hero a chance to win back his self-respect, and all the romance and familial respect and fame and fortune that goes along with it.

Fine.

The problem with Sultan, though, is that it is the heroine, Aarfa Hussein (played brilliantly by the ever-talented Anushka Sharma), who has the dream to become the world's greatest Olympic wrestler. She dedicates her life to this dream and, as we learn in an early monologue, dedicates herself to the pursuit of female equality in India. That is, she has a reason to become the greatest wrestler in the world. Khan merely becomes a wrestler because he wants to impress her. In just three months' time, Khan manages to make wrestling history, and only because he wants to date a girl. Movies often demand the suspension of disbelief, but this is ridiculous - no one could become a national wrestling champion at age 30 in a sport they only first encountered a few months ago!

Once Khan gets going, Aarfa becomes pregnant and subjugates her dream to his - which is exactly what she vowed never to do, and all in the name of female equality. Yet Sultan's script writers never really pursue this. *Shrug*, oh well, Sultan Ali Khan is the greatest of all time!

If all this weren't bad enough, eventually the time comes for a retired Sultan to make a comeback and learn mixed martial arts, and - gee, whiz - he has to train to become the greatest MMA fighter in India... in just three months!

This is a bridge too far. Even if the audience could believe that he could win ever relevant international wrestling competition, including the Olympics, in his first year with the sport, to then repeat it all over again eight years later in a totally new sport is preposterous. And it's frustrating because there was no good reason for the writers to write the movie that way. A training montage could have spanned 3 months or 3 years, the audience shouldn't have to care about that. Making such a simple part of the plot just a little credible would have cost the producers nothing. So all this really is is bad writing.

Despite the bad writing, the movie has two major selling points. First, Anushka Sharma's performance is everything we've come to expect from her. Her facial expressions, mannerisms, and acting perfectly encapsulate a real wold-class female athlete. Those of us who have had some proximity to elite sports have some insight into this, and what I can tell you is that I was really impressed by how well she nailed her character. Brilliant.

Second, the soundtrack is pretty good. While not every song will be a hit, at least two of the songs are really quite good, especially compared to the quality of Hindi songs these days. For moviegoers who are mainly interested in the song-and-dance aspect of Bollywood films, this one will not disappoint. However, don't expect much in the way of great dance sequences.

All in all, I think this movie was pretty bad. It's not horrible - for example, I'd much rather watch Sultan than, say, House Full. But "not the worst Hindi movie I've ever seen" is not exactly great praise. Ultimately, I'd recommend skipping this one.