By: Samar Khan
After a decent hiatus, Salman Khan releases a brand new film for Eid and I end my own hiatus from Bollywood films by penning a review for our beloved TFL audience. After his hit-and-miss 2015 where he delivered the heartwarming Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the critically disappointing Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, Salman Khan returns with a bang in this new flick centered on a mud pit wrestler turned MMA fighter.
So, would the film be as good as Bajrangi Bhaijaan or as mediocre as another recent MMA-based Bollywood movie in Brothers? The answer, as is often the case in Salman Khan’s career, lies somewhere in the middle.
Sultan’s problems can easily be summed up as follows: it tried to tell two different stories in separate ways and hoped the already excessive 2 hours and 50-minute runtime was enough. Unfortunately for Ali Abbas Zafar and co., switching from a fast paced romance and even faster paced rise to the top of the wrestling echelon in the first half to a VERY slow redemption story in the second half brought about pacing issues that could not be overcome. As will be illustrated below, the highs of the films were nearly entirely negated by the numerous lows.
The film is as basic a tale as you can get when creating an Indian film: hero likes girl, hero needs to convince girl he is ambitious, hero messes up somewhere so the final act can consist of the hero redeeming himself and getting his girl back. Sultan follows this formula to an absolute tee, casting the aforementioned Khan as our hero Sultan (duh!), who falls for a tough wrestler type village girl in Anushka Sharma’s Aarfa. Khan portrays a dim yet large-hearted individual who takes up wrestling to impress Sharma’s world-class level wrestler character, messes up on the path to success and then spends the entire second half putting his pehlewan (Indian wrestling) skills to the ultimate test in an MMA format based off of the UFC.
The film focuses heavily (in the first half, said focus is overly excessive) on capturing the Haryanvi Hindi dialect prominent in the region the film takes place. The problem with this decision, however, is that it becomes abundantly clear 5 minutes in that casting non-Haryanvi actors was the wrong idea. The accents are all over the place and both Khan and Sharma lose their Haryanvi inflections with alarming regularity throughout.
Since this segment also focuses on the dialogue, some discussion is required on this topic. The writing was, for the most part, commendable throughout but instances of poor writing both in the script and for characters’ dialogues had me face-palming. For example, one of the early comedy arcs in the film centers on Khan’s Sultan misunderstanding Sharma’s insult of “shit boy” as “sit boy.” The film tries its utmost to make the audience laugh at Khan’s characters sudden realization that he was actually insulted but the lack of laughs around me was indicative of the juvenile quality of many of the jokes. In terms of poor scripting, this was prevalent throughout whenever Sharma’s character had to play a major role. The film kept on trying to hammer home the image of rural Indian villages preferring to sire boys rather than girls and while the message was commendable, its execution was anything but. At one point, Sharma mentions how she bucked the trend and became one of those rare girls that the father grows to love. Two seconds later, all the goodwill disappears from the scene when she proudly admits she was raised as a boy. This sort of inconsistency was jarring, to say the least.
The biggest issue with the writing and/or plot of the film concerned the “two halves” conundrum Sultan finds itself in. The first half of the film focuses on Khan rising through the ranks as a wrestler from the mud-pits to the Olympics and throws in a romance that goes from courtship to marriage in about 8 minutes. To put it in easier terms, the first half was FAST and tried to tell many years worth of story in ∼90 minutes. This would not be such a problem if the second half didn’t move at a snail’s price, storyline wise. While the first half encompassed about 8 years of growth for the characters (too much in too little time), the second half completely flipped the switch and focused entirely on a tournament and a quick “Rocky-style” training montage that was anywhere between 6 weeks and 3 months. If they had stuck to a similar pace in both halves, the issues would not be as magnified as they ended up being. Alas, it was jarring to go from a breakneck pace to a Donald Trump reading level pace and noticeably stood out. The second half was saved by an exceptionally entertaining (and woefully predictable and melodramatic) MMA tournament that was exactly what you would think Bollywood sees the sport of MMA consisting of.
The characters and acting all around was, similar to the rest of the film, inconsistent. Salman Khan himself seemed to go from disinterested in the first half to actually motivated in the second half, essentially becoming a Being Human (his humanitarian organization) representative in the second half with the requisite fantastic fights and comebacks expected of heroes in his films. While he made his character enjoyable to watch by virtue of being Khan (Khan lends immediate credibility to any character he plays), his wayward Haryanvi accent and inconsistent use of the dialect really stood out and showcased his weaknesses as an actor. He shined in certain meta-type scenes, however, with a certain scene talking about Shah Rukh Khan and another talking about himself not being an actor being highlights of the first half.
Khan’s co-star in Anushka Sharma was prone to the same issues as Khan but also the victim of poor writing that made her character seem incredibly shallow at the wrong times. Anant Vidhaat Sharma was a delight to watch as Khan’s childhood friend, Govind, but sadly had too little screentime in the second half to leave much of a lasting effect. The rest of the cast was solid with no standout performances, although the aforementioned UFC star Tyron Woodley cameo was a treat.
Let me start this section off by saying one thing: there is no Arijit Singh on this soundtrack. Due to some sort of personal feud between the A list singer and Khan, Arijit was replaced on the soundtrack by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan in what turned out to be a surprisingly inspired choice. Rahat delivers an absolute gem of a song with his rendition of Jag Ghoomeya, which I can easily see topping the playlist of many Bollywood music fans for months to come.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the rest of the soundtrack. While it was catchy in places (the “He Sultan” score prevalent throughout the movie was great), the songs were just mediocre to average. When a song is titled 440 Volt, you know you are in for a bad time. At the same time, however, the song Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai was juvenile in terms of its lyrics yet HIGHLY entertaining so maybe there is a middle ground where some songs can be both fun and stupid at the same time. Overall, however, the soundtrack was nothing special.
The way this film failed to resonate as much as Bajrangi Bhaijaan was the way it tried to get its message across. While attempting to portray Khan’s character as someone who folds his hands in apology after every fight, as a true Indian who won’t drink or smoke and also as being the type of underdog that will win over the world and twirl his average moustache (he can never top his Chulbul Pandey stache, people!), the film fails to lend complexity and depth to Aarfa and her relationship with Sultan. It could have been anything but a typical “Bhai” film if it attempted to do something besides make Salman win fights while shirtless and being the perfect Indian.
Randeep Hooda was entirely wasted in this film, as he received about 4 minutes of actual screen time altogether and served to punctuate scenes of “tension” during the MMA bouts for Sultan by appearing worried. For an actor that has been remarkably brilliant for the most part in the last few years, this role was a waste of his talents.
For the MMA fans that will no doubt inquire as to the representation of the sport in the film, no, it was not realistic at all. As is the norm for Bollywood, the action was highly stylized and overly comical –yet entertaining- throughout and would make even the most casual of MMA fans take notice at the liberties taken. For example, one constant seemed to be that every single fighter would utilize acrobatic 720-degree spin kicks multiple times per round, which is not a viable strategy in real-life and it really messes with the film’s attempt to portray the other aspects of MMA as realistic. One Anderson Silva (a UFC star) caricature in the film literally adopts all of the fooling around Silva does in his real-life fights and multiplies it by 100. MMA fans, go in with low expectations.
After Salman, Aamir Khan will be releasing his own film about a pehlewan titled Dangal later this year. Ever the perfectionist, it remains to be seen if he can make the sport of wrestling as realistic and fun as the majority of his films. After the failure of Akshay Kumar’s Brothers and the decidedly average nature of Sultan, go in with lowered expectations to Aamir’s next big hit.
We here at The Film Lawyers have awarded Sultan with a grade of C+ (6.9/10).
Pros / Cons
+ For the female audience, Salman is constantly shirtless
+ Rahat’s “Jag Ghoomeya” song is an instant classic
+ MMA enthusiasts will appreciate Tyron Woodley and nods to legends ala Anderson Silva
+ Khan’s enthusiasm helps elevate the second half past most shortcomings of the first half
– The Haryanvi accents were hilariously inconsistent
– Interval brings about an entirely different – and disjointed from the first half- film following the break
– Mediocre soundtrack overall
– Inconsistent pacing and unwillingness to follow film’s timeline