At one point while doing interviews for the Indian release of the Bollywood film “Sultan,” its lead actor, Salman Khan, compared the exhaustion of his physical training to a raped woman. He was skewered by the media and the public for about half a minute. That’s about average for Khan: This is the man who, last May, was finally convicted of his 2002 hit and run of a homeless man, only to be let out on a $500 bail two days later so that he could resume filming. Thanks to a 25-year career featuring some of the biggest hits in Hindi cinema history — including “Maine Pyar Kiya,” and “Hum Aapke Hain Kaun” — he now pulls in a steady $40 million paycheck for his gigs along with a continent-spanning following that surpasses most American stars.
Khan’s flawed image is mollified somewhat by his lifetime of charitable efforts, which have endowed him with a larger-than-life, Robin Hood-like appeal. Fans across India refer to him simply as “Bhai” (brother).
Needless to say, Khan’s got a firm grip on his fans. With “Sultan,” the latest offering from producing/distributing juggernaut Yash Raj Films, director Ali Abbas Zafar seems to want to tighten that hold still further. The story of a once-decorated wrestler, whose glory days come to a screeching halt when personal tragedy strips his will to fight, “Sultan” presents Khan (in the title role) in that classic underdog sports movie that should charm just about all of us. But as the film inches along its bloated 170-minute runtime, Zafar, Sultan, and Khan’s grasps each begin to slip.
We first meet Sultan in the ring, an enclosed dirt pit onto which he purposefully strides (amidst raucous cheers in the theater—standard protocol for Khan’s intro scene in any of his films) before breaking both regional records and his opponents’ bones with the brute force of his boulder-like arms. But Sultan hasn’t always been king of the wrestling. An aimless cable installer in his small Haryana town north of Delhi, he first develops an appetite to fight when he falls hard for the beautiful, English-educated Aarfa (Anushka Sharma). A wrestler herself, with Olympic dreams, Aarfa won’t consider marrying him until he shows some direction in life.
But as he proves his worth, gets the girl, and wins a world title, an unexpected twist of fate knocks out life as he knows it, and he retires from the ring—until years later, when, presented with the chance to fight again, he sees an opportunity to regain what he lost, if only he can get back in shape.
Despite some of the usual Bollywood razzle-dazzle, this might be the most authentic performance Khan has done on screen in a decade, as Sultan must undergo a considerable arc from guileless lightweight to national champion to fallen hero — and, finally, a dark horse hoping for redemption. Khan is no master at emoting, and his not-so-convincing Haryana accent renders several of his lines to unintelligible garble. But in a welcome departure from previous films, he spares us from his usual slapstick antics and stunts that only crescendo in their level of asininity. Instead, he infuses Sultan with an unmistakable sincerity that endears us to his various metamorphoses (which are presented in montages that don’t even try to hide their resemblance to Rocky’s training sequences).
The supporting cast further bolsters the story. Sharma is fiery yet restrained in her portrayal of a woman whose life becomes but a shadow of her hard-fought aspirations, while Randeep Hooda (“Monsoon Wedding,” “Highway”) is a brief breath of fresh air as the trainer who whips Sultan into comeback shape.
But the solid performances can’t distract from an overly ambitious and crowded plot. Perhaps not wanting to hew too closely to the typical sports film formula, Zafar goes heavy-handed with his addition of the trademark Hindi film romance tropes. The song and dance numbers are not just misplaced, they’re superfluous—the one planted at the end of the third act, in which a lovelorn Sultan pauses the buildup to the climax so that he can croon a ballad about Aarfa to a packed nightclub, is plain painful to sit through. Sultan and Aarfa’s prolonged estrangement could have stood alone as its own movie. Meanwhile, wrestling matches are mercilessly drawn out in the first half alone, taking on a repetitive quality so that by the time Sultan is ready for act two, we’re the ones who are out of steam.
Meanwhile, the movie’s themes are surface-deep: Perseverance, forgiveness, hard work and humility lie at its heart and in its message. Zafar treats us to some striking rural and urban panoramas while relaying that message, as Sultan gears up along mustard fields of Haryana in the first half, and in front of Delhi’s iconic India Gate in the second. Tongue-in-cheek humor is woven in at appropriate moments, and Khan’s delivery is on point. The movie makes a few earnest attempts at injecting a feminist aspect into the material, with Aarfa delivering an impassioned monologue about equality in gender roles.
But with each plot point competing for screen time in this overlong saga, what could have been a tightly-wound fighting picture somehow takes almost three hours to unfurl, and neither the romance nor the wrestling angle can sustain its appeal to the end. Ultimately, we’re given too much extra padding for “Sultan” to pack a truly tight punch, but it’s safe to say that probably doesn’t matter—it is a Khan film, after all, where the regular rules don’t apply. His fans will make sure it’s a knockout at the box office anyway.