Let’s just face it, Salman Khan has built a career on playing himself in every other movie. The narratives may vary, but the persona doesn’t change. He’s always the lovable, irreverent man-child with an unwavering moral compass and a weakness for losing his shirt. Whether disguised in a burqa while traveling across Pakistan to deposit a mute girl to her home in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, or pausing to break into an impromptu dance while pummeling the bad guys in Dabangg, what he delivers is a performance, but you can’t call it acting.
In Sultan, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, the actor comes closest to playing a character that feels real, complete with flaws and failures, and one that doesn’t take his shirt off for purely gratuitous reasons. Playing a middle-aged, out-of-shape former wrestler who enters the ring again, to exorcise personal demons, Salman delivers an impressive, full-bodied performance, easily his most credible acting job since…forever.
The script, however, is less solid, and relies too heavily on familiar tropes and overused sports-movie clichés. The rise and rise of our underdog hero, small-town Haryanvi Jatt Sultan Ali Khan, as he goes from local slacker to world wrestling champion is demonstrated through a series of slick training montages. His romance with Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), a feisty young wrestler, is documented through multiple songs. There is conflict, then a shot at redemption when a now-grizzled Sultan returns to conquer the ring.
At a butt-numbing 2 hours and 50 minutes, the film feels way too long, especially in its first half, which is more or less entirely a flashback. It’s a shame the makers don’t know what to do with Anushka’s character after a point, introducing her as a progressive, forward-thinking feminist then sidelining her completely. Anushka, by the way, is pretty good in the role, but suffers on account of the weak script.
There are good actors in key supporting roles, including Randeep Hooda as a cynical trainer who must whip Sultan back into shape, Kumud Mishra as Aarfa’s father, Amit Sadh as the entrepreneur behind an MMA Premiere League, and an especially terrific Anant Sharma as Sultan’s best friend Govind. But make no mistake, the film really serves as a showcase for its leading man’s incredible screen presence, and his surprisingly mature performance in a role that requires much heavy-lifting…literally.
Salman is especially affecting in later scenes as the defeated protagonist who seizes the opportunity to right the wrongs. He’s convincing also in the film’s excellent wrestling sequences that look, feel, and sound real and brutal.
Sultan is predictable, no two questions about it. But it’s powered by a riveting central performance that makes you overlook so many of its problems. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.