Sultan is an emotional punch of sacrifice, loss and redemption. The performance feels authentic . If you are looking for the usual masala entertainer – you surely won’t find it here. His quips are silenced by his love interest (Anushka Sharma) calling him stupid and directionless even with some deft moves in the ring, Sultan Ali Khan is not constantly talking about how he can beat down 10 men. Pride is in fact a large part of the emotional downfall from which he will eventually rebuild.
The tale opens with a man named Aakash Oberoi (Amit Sadh) and his failing Indian MMA league, which a wise old father promises can be saved by a desi fighter folks can root for. He knows just the guy, too. So the son sets off to a village in Haryana in search of Sultan, ex-world champ and Olympian wrestler, to learn of his life story and convince him to come out of retirement to single-handedly save the league.
Of the two tales, the backstory is far more compelling. Sultan is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, installing satellite dishes and chasing falling kites around his village. Then he meets Aarfa, determined to be a wrestler at the Olympics. He falls hard, but she’s too ambitious to fall for just anyone. So Sultan sets out to become a wrestler himself, getting beat a few times by trained guys until he learns the hard way he actually needs to work for this goal.
But once he decides to knuckle down, you can guess how his trek goes — he gets to the state championship and wins, he gets to the Commonwealth Games and wins, he gets to the Olympics and wins. All the while he gets drunk on success as his personal life deteriorates. It is, after all, a sports movie. For all of the background posters and short impassioned speeches about girl’s rights, Anushka Sharma’s Aarfa becomes less of a character after a point and simply a lost object for Sultan to pine over and seek to regain.
She enters the picture determined to wrestle her way to the Olympics and angry at every one of Sultan’s attempts to stand in the way. But then she happily agrees to marry Sultan after he wins one (one!) state championship and even more happily gives up her dreams of the Olympics for more traditional women’s roles. Even when Aarfa and Sultan are separated by the tragedy that makes him stop wrestling, she doesn’t go back to her dreams.
Salman gives a fighting performance, his character graph moving plausibly from a cheery, everyday “loojer” to a determined athlete, an arrogant star, a crushed, depressed, lonely guy. Anushka plays her familiar feisty girl, with a rustic twang and self-control, but fairly little change. Sultan treads a predictable line until it reaches the climax. In the best part of the movie, Salman carries forward his Bajrangi Bhaijaan act.
The man you see in the ring is down to earth, humble and quite unlike your typical Bollywood superstar. He is scared of his opponents, and fails to hide his pain despite being the strong, silent kind. The director’s biggest success lies in taming Salman’s overpowering persona. Zafar further breaks the film into three distinct acts, and the actor excels in each of them. From playing a done-and-dusted homegrown wrestler to a wonder-boy of freestyle fighting, you see Salman put up a performance like never before. Sultan takes a cue from Tom Hardy’s Warrior, but that’s about it. The pot-bellied, middle-aged wrestler is mostly his own creation. Anant Sharma’s fantastic act as Sultan’s sidekick Govind is also notice-worthy. Sultan is a brilliant experience with wholesome entertainment!