The relative new sport of mixed martial arts has of late made huge inroads recently and continues to conquer new markets and large arenas. The sport mixes classical wrestling with grappling and even kicking. To catch the surging wave on the upswing, Yash Raj turned to Salman Khan, who, in addition to having platinum box office creds, also hands down the most controversial player in Hindi cinema. Hitting the bull’s crosshairs between romance and sporting choreography, Sultan lands an entertaining punch.
Played out almost backwards in the first half of the Zafar-penned story, Sultan (Khan) pines away in a clerical job in a village in Haryana. The over-the-hill former wrestling champ now appears to have given up that past. A very long shot chance at a do-over of his career arrives in the form of Akash (Sadh), a mixed martial arts promoter, with a proposition for Sultan to return to the sporting arena and just possibly re-kindle his lost mojo. Even as Sultan contemplates the offer, we rewind eight years to when Sultan was smitten with Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), a state level wrestling champ and daughter of a local wrestling coach, a connection that sets the stage for Sultan’s existential tug between the promise of redemption in the sporting arena and finding true love.
Filmmaker Zafar, who tasted success with Yash Raj’s Gunday and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, taps into production values that are nothing short of exquisite. Polish cinematographer Artur Zurowski’s camerawork can zoom in on the fine particles of sand in the dusty backwoods jousting joints where a younger Sultan gets his start. The wheat fields where Sultan romances Aarfa appear verdant and endless, bounded only by abundantly filled canals far and wide. This ethnic vibe of Sultan’s Punjabi-inflected origin story creates a sharp contrast between his humble, rural background and the international showcases that beckon after reluctantly agreeing to return to the ring.
Khan, never one to shy away from going shirtless, here opts for form-hugging wrestling shorts. Buffed to fit a brawn that is required, this extended stint spent in micro-briefs and nothing else, while appearing starling at first for an A-list star, eventually becomes inseparable from Sultan’s identity, thus enlivening the role. Strangely, as the stakes rise—for that elusive mojo, for his relationship with his now-wife Aarfa, for salvation both for himself as well as his steel-edged new coach Fateh Singh (Hooda)—as long as Sultan dons that scant uniform, there is a hint of hope. The nearly three-hour long story flashes by fairly quickly.
Countering Khan’s Sultan, there is Anushka Sharma’s strongly played Aarfa. While no slouch to big screen success (Rab Ne Bane Di Jodi, PK, NH10), she has the thankless task of blending into the background due to the demands of being married to a wrestling star. Sadly she, and not he, may have to choose between career and family. Hooda injects believable second-chance toughness into a boxing corner where he may unknowingly help Sultan find lost footing. This troika of strong-willed characters makes the story stand apart.
On Vishal-Shekhar’s decent soundtrack, two songs stand out. “Jag Ghoomeya” has two versions, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s male version and Neha Bhasin’s female version. Originally recorded by Arijit Singh who had a falling out with Salman Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s offering is both soulful and effervesces to that cloud just out of reach. A call to the sojourner to return home, the rich, silken vocals linger long after the stereo is turned off. “Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai” is the other number worth pausing for. The catchy dance tune is crooned by a group of singers lead by Vishal Dadlani and it is about, egad, a bass-crazed babe. It is the festive opposite of both versions of “Jag Ghoomeya.”
By press time, Sultan had virtually vanquished the box office. With no major competing releases since a July 6 rollout, the movie stormed to a phenomenal $75 million global take—colossal by Indian standards and enough to make it the 5th highest grossing movie in Indian history within two weeks. Mixed martial arts is an unregulated sport in India, which means it is rife for exploitation and corruption. Sultan may just blaze the trail to expand the explosive new sport’s mass appeal to gain a foothold and respectability into a new bull market made up of more than one-and-a-half billion South Asian noses.