IN TERMS OF pacing, this may well be the slowest Salman Khan film. It is a long and exhausting movie, but the plot is one of the few in which this star’s character is developed. This may be good news or bad news, depending on the levels of hostility or adoration with which one views him.
The film shows us a star whose favourite style of performance is exhibitionism, but who can act when he wants to. It is true that the perspective on Khan’s personal and professional life is often blurred beyond recognition, but if good acting can be described as an intelligent mix between the actual persona of the actor and the character he or she inhabits, then the personality of Sultan Ali Khan, a professional wrestler from Haryana, is consistently played and develops naturally.
Salman has worked very hard on Sultan Ali Khan. He may not have got the Haryanavi accent down to perfection, but he is convincing as a simple soul in that rough-hewn rustic environment which breeds so many Indian sportsmen and women. With his powerful torso and swagger, he fits into the tradition of Indian-style wrestling and the way it is nurtured—almost as a unique form of culture, reflecting the spirit of the soil. There are a number of scenes in the film where Sultan picks up sand from the wrestling arena of his native town, rubs it on his palm and carries it to international stadiums where he wrestles.
However, in terms of physical appearance, Salman’s upper body is far more developed than his legs, which are relatively thin and disproportionately so. No wrestler can hope to be successful without powerful feet and legs, for grip and tackle. Still, the latter half of the film, which have several bouts of mixed martial arts with Sultan grappling with real life fighters like Tyron Woodley and Marko Zaror, is hugely entertaining, though not entirely convincing as victories for Sultan. To Salman Khan’s credit, he has worked with these wrestlers to make the matches look real and has rarely, if at all, relegated his part of the action to stuntmen.
Another difference in Sultan from the usual fare he clinically gives us is the emotional and character space he gives other performers. His co-actors here have actually been given fully fleshed- out roles, particularly his love interest and later estranged wife, a woman wrestler called Aarfa, played by Anushka Sharma. She is the trigger for Sultan turning to the sport and supports him in his career, sacrificing her own career for the sake of his. This is unfortunate, but given the patriarchal social structure in Haryana, quite believable. Anushka does an excellent job playing the wife whose resentment and anger grows as she sees her husband’s self-obsession and arrogance rise, even as he refuses to acknowledge her own contribution to his newfound professional and social status.
Randeep Hooda, who plays Sultan’s coach Fateh Singh, has a short but attractive role, and arrives on the scene towards the end. Fateh refuses to accept the training assignment at first because he sees Sultan as a burnt-out case. But later, as he notices the innovative spark of ‘desi’ style wrestling emerging from the wrestler’s technique, he changes his mind and becomes a passionate advocate and supporter.
It is this indigenous element of wrestling, native to the soil, which works well in the film. Were the narrative not so long and the pace so lumbering, the film would have worked better.