Somewhere close to a highway, they converse over a glass of sugarcane juice. And right in the midst of small talk, the 30ish man and the younger woman bring up the issue of prejudice against a girl child. And their conversation actually makes sense, simple and to the point of why and how, the gender bias lingers on, and can be overcome. Terrific.
Indeed the USP of Sultan, written and directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, is that pithy, almost casual vignette. Moreover, the woman is consistently dignified and blessed with an equal status, a super-surprise for a sports film in which Salman Khan is its mega-selling point. Which Khan surely is, occupying almost every frame throughout the running length of 170 minutes, but fortuitously, never at the expense of downsizing the leading lady as well as the abundant ensemble of characters who make an impact even in brisk cameos.
None of this would have been possible if the script hadn’t been authored thoughtfully, neatly constructed especially till the intermission, besides employing the Haryanvi dialect unobtrusively.
For once, the dialoguebaazi isn’t theatrical or bombastic. It is effective simply because it’s restrained, one of its most resonating lines being vis-a-vis the commercialism and corruption of sports events. “I sent you out to earn respect,” says the woman to the global champion with whom she once shared sugarcane juice, adding, “But you have returned home with arrogance.” Touché.
The Sugar twosome are, of course, Sultan Ali Khan (You Know Who) and Aarfa
(Anushka Sharma). He’s a small town gadabout, she’s an aspiring wrestling candidate for the Olympics, training under her father (Kumud Mishra, bankably excellent) who also coaches an eager-beaver group of male pehelwans.
As in Dabangg, our Khan hero at a belated age falls head over heels in love with the no-nonsense girl. To impress Aarfa, he sculpts and steels his nerves and body to become a national champ and then excels at bouts the world over. Quite easily done, you might cavil.
Fortunately, since the film’s strictly a work of fiction and uses the montage-device fluidly, the swift change over from a novice to a gold-medal winner at the Olympics no less, is as believable as any loser-turned-winner’s triumph of the will – as evidenced in the series of boxer movies ranging from Rocky and The Raging Bull to Creed.
The Hollywood hangover is obvious, redeemingly by touches like Sultan rubbing his hands with a palm full of desh ki dharti. Gratifyingly, this isn’t exaggerated to the nth degree. Similarly, the Muslim milieu isn’t heightened at all. No foisting in of any contrived secular elements. Mercy be.
In fact, the nikaah between Sultan and Aarfa is handled with humour and grace (particularly funny is a video recording which shows that the macho Sultan had fallen asleep on his suhaag raat).
Next: the plot has to twist. After all, a faint shade of A Star is Born (read Abhimaan, if you like) has been looming over the couple’s future. A bit predictable perhaps, but this twist compels your eyes to well over with tears.
So far, so mwaaah. As with most films which stretch yawn, the second-half does drag and gets repetitive. Re-training Sultan, who has gone to seed because of circumstances beyond control, yields far too may scenes to depict his return to shape. Moreover, Vishal-Shekhar’s music score least one song interlude too many. Of the lot, Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai is a zinger, robustly choreographed by Farah Khan.
Flaccid passages aside, there’s still sufficient excitement post-intermission since Sultan must regain his lost glory, this time in the arena of mixed martial arts. Quite audaciously, Khan is allowed extended solo moments of introspection. And believe it or faint, Salman Bhai asserts that he can actually act, delving into his emotional reserves. In fact, at the risk of generalization, it could be said Sultan is his career best, ricocheting between prankish smugness to sheer vulnerability. And yes, he can carry off the difference between his real age and that of his screen character’s.
Anushka Sharma, subtracted of glamour, is impressive, using her eye language often to do the talking. Randeep Hooda, in an abbreviated role of a reluctant coach, does make his presence felt although just about. Amit Sadh, as a sports entrepreneur, is inspired.
Technically, Polish cinematographer Artur Zurawski is shorn of frills (unless you count the recurring aerial shots). The editing is serviceable. The sound mix enhances the suspense-fraught moments during the action bouts.
Behind the scenes, all’s professional but would have meant zilch if it weren’t for Ali Abbas Zafar’s screenplay and dialogue. Quite a quantum leap ahead for the writer-director who once gave us the tedious Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and the brain-bashing Gunday.
In two words: have fun.
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