VOD Review: Sultan.
Salman Khan stars in Sultan, an underdog sports story that’s more rocky than Rocky.
As wonderful as Dangal was this year, it was not the first film about an Indian wrestler on my radar. Bollywood superstar Salman Khan (Tubelight) beat Dangal to theaters by about 6 months with the story of Sultan, a man who becomes a wrestler for love but nearly loses everything because of his pride. The film made big money around the world and has a solid critical consensus, but the disparate parts of Sultan’s story never quite come together for me.
On paper, the film has many of the same themes as Dangal: a talented wrestler who is thwarted by personal family problems and a strong female protagonist who is a wrestler despite social norms. The trailer certainly plays up these similarities. At it’s core, Sultan is a much different movie for better or worse. It throws traditional wrestling into the current world of mixed martial arts, and is really more of a comeback story like Rocky II. It is unfortunate that by rushing the story, focusing on outside-the-ring action, and glossing much of the fighting, Sultan ends up much more like the disappointing Rocky III.
Sultan Ali Khan is a likable but unfocused man stuck in a rut until he meets Aarfa, a local wrestling champion. He instantly falls in love with her, but cannot get her attention since wrestling is all she cares about. Sultan decides to become a wrestler but is humiliated because of his lack of training. After some serious training, he discovers a talent for the sport and ultimately wins Aarfa’s love and many gold medals. When personal tragedy strikes because of his arrogance, he retires but is coaxed back into the ring by a young man who wants India to have a champion in a very different sport: mixed martial arts.
A Tale of Three Movies.
Sultan’s ambition is to win Aarfa’s love and become the best wrestler in the world. The movie’s ambition is to tell a love story while also making a rousing underdog sports film. Not just one underdog sports story, either. Sultan is really two films: the first is the rise and fall of an Indian wrestler, the second is the return to glory and redemption of a fighter. The problem is that despite a nearly 3 hour run-time, Sultan never quite gives enough attention to any of these three parts.
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
The love story between Aarfa (Anushka Sharma) and Sultan (Salman Khan) has excellent moments. Aarfa and Sultan have a great chemistry as colleagues in wrestling and close friends. There are some great scenes and dialogue where you see where each challenges and supports the other. When it blossoms into a love story, it diminishes their equality somewhat but is salvaged by the chemistry of the two leads. It is also the place where the music and dance sequences are strongest. What could have been a dedicated tale of courtship and personal growth is too frequently put on hold so that the sports stories can take over.
Sultan is definitely cribbing notes from one of the best known franchises in the genre: Rocky. The unlikely rise of a slightly foolish but hard working man and the strain it puts on his personal life is all Rocky I. A tragic fall caused by arrogance is Rocky III. The eventual return to form and last burst of glory in a younger fighter’s world is very much Rocky Balboa. Trying to fuse all three of these stories into one film means that much is passed over and under-developed. Instead of seeing India’s vision of Sylvester Stallone‘s fighter, we get a film that feels borrowed in many places.
The constant shift in focus means that the movie rarely shows a fully developed fight scene. When Sultan is wrestling, we mostly see him floor others in a single slam. There’s not a deep investment in the world of traditional Indian wrestling like there was in Dangal. Without being steeped in the system, his wins come off as flashy and cool but hollow.
When we move into MMA, we get some better developed fights, if only because this system of scoring is so much better known. Even then, we get a version of MMA that feels glamorized and unrealistic. Scenes where Sultan is nearly downed but manages to find enough energy to rally don’t work in MMA because MMA fighters don’t get a count. Instead of having time to flashback to his wife’s face or his coach’s lesson plans, Sultan would be eating elbows and knees on the canvas!
The final arc of the tournament is at the same time the most exciting and the least believable. The fights come fast and furious, despite the fact that real MMA fighters train months or years between bouts. Even Rocky wouldn’t fight Apollo and Ivan Drago on consecutive nights! This all ramps up to ludicrous levels when Sultan must fight through a broken rib. It builds the tension…but there is no way in hell a fighter would be allowed to go into that ring in that shape. I just don’t buy it.
Fantasy League Wrestling.
Sultan has some great moments that are overshadowed by how ludicrous the plot becomes. Movies in this genre are by no means sports biopics, but there is only so much glamorizing you can do before the end product looks like a farce of the original. I can see where the makers of Sultan wanted to outdo films like Rocky and therefore turned each element up to 11…but it ends up being silly. It’s a shame, since much of the fight choreography is well done and the visual style used is very polished and modern. At the end of the day, I just can’t get invested into such an unrealistic sports story.