Writer-director Ali Abbas Zafar’s film opens with a quote by Sultan himself: that wrestling is about fighting what lies within. In Sultan’s (Salman Khan) case, it’s about fighting his own demons, ones built over years, which come to a head in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) tournament and are exorcised while he pummels international fighters.
A small town man with limited aspirations finds his muse in a local wrestler who challenges him to earn respect and thereby win her over. And just as a doctor marries a doctor, Aarfa two wants to marry a wrestler. That’s all Sultan needs to give him a mission and miraculously, within a month he’s ready to compete at the State championships.
Sultan’s story is told mainly in flashback by his sidekick Govind (Anant Sharma) to businessman Akash Oberoi (Amit Sadh) who is determined to salvage his flagging Pro Take Down MMA event. On his father’s advice Akash has gone to Haryana to check out former Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Sultan and to coax him out of retirement. But it will take more than the lure of the bright lights to bring Sultan back from the semi-dead. Naturally, Akash succeeds and Sultan engages in an intensive fitness regime under the guidance of a new coach (played by a rather gaunt looking Randeep Hooda).
Sultan might be pegged as a Salman Khan film but for me, the film belonged to Anushka Sharma and Anant Sharma. Anushka’s Aarfa is a small town girl educated in ‘English medium’ who is an ambitious and talented wrestler with her sights set on the Olympic gold. She’s liberated, direct and interesting and she trains at her father’s akhada. Aarfa thinks nothing of being friends with a man and riding around on his motorbike even though the man (in this case Sultan) misinterprets this as romance. Sharma plays the character, who is both strong and soft, and a too hardheaded, with passion and succeeds in adding emotional heft to a film that otherwise struggles to take the audience along on Sultan’s journey.
Anant Sharma is a delight as Sultan’s best friend Govind whose Haryanvi accent is the only one that’s consistent and who brings humor and pathos in equal measure to his part. It’s these two characters that safe this from being a by-the-numbers underdog sports theme love story with Zafar ticking off all the boxes.
While the drama and action scenes in the second half are high points, there are too many songs (though I enjoyed ‘Baby ko bass’ and ‘Jag ghoomiya’), the wrestling scenes are cursory and at 170 minutes you begin to tire of the story. But then there’s Salman Khan. So it’s up to Khan. And he rises to the occasion – going from fit to fat, from nobody to somebody, from respected to arrogant, from strong to broken, from hurt to healing.
Sultan won’t have you pondering for days after, nor will you feel a greater affinity for wrestlers at Rio this year but it might increase the fan following for MMA and surely hearten Salman’s fans.