The powerful 2016 sports drama Sultan tells the story of the rise, fall and rise of a wrestler. The story is reminiscent of the saga of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, an underdog who works hard and finds success in the ring, but with distinctive Indian sensibilities.
For Sultan Ali Khan (Salman Khan), isn't about wrestling, it is about the fight.
Here is a picture that was taken while training. pic.twitter.com/z9pVIETX6u— Salman Khan (@BeingSalmanKhan) October 9, 2015
If you are new to Bollywood, here are five aspects of this film that make it worth a watch.
1. An Ancient Sport Honored
Wrestling is considered one of the most ancient sports in the world, dating back to the Sumerians over 5000 years ago. In the epic poem Gilgamesh, the world's first great work of literature, Dionysian Enkidu grapples with Apollonian Gilgamesh and loses - but gains a friendship. Genesis includes an account of Jacob wrestling all night with God who blesses him then renames him Israel. The epic Mahabharata tells of a 14-day wrestling match where the mighty Bhima (with some help from Krishna) overpowers Jarasandha, the king of Magadha. The Ramayana describes the monkey god Hanuman as one of the greatest wrestlers of his time.
While modern day professional wrestling in America features theatrical events and ongoing "feuds" between competitors, Indian wrestling is considered a prestigious sport of skill and strength.
In the film, Sultan hails from the northwest state of Haryana, where he participates in local wrestling competitions, or "dangal". According to Wikipedia,
Wrestlers train and compete on dirt floors. Before training, the floor is raked of any pebbles or stones. Buttermilk, oil, and red ochre are sprinkled to the ground, giving the dirt its red hue. Water is added every few days to keep it at the right consistency; soft enough to avoid injury but hard enough so as not to impede the wrestlers' movements. Every match is preceded by the wrestlers throwing a few handfuls of dirt from the floor on themselves and their opponent as a form of blessing. A win is achieved by pinning the opponent's shoulders and hips to the ground simultaneously, although victory by knockout, stoppage or submission is also possible. In some variations of the rules, only pinning the shoulders down is enough. Bouts are overseen by a referee inside the ring and a panel of two judges watching from the outside.
As Sultan, Salman Khan struts into the wrestling arena as if he owns the place. Soon you understand why. He flips, turns, rolls, and throws the competition to the ground with an ease reserved for the experienced winner. In an AsianAge.com article, Sultan director Ali Abbas Zafar explains,
"Wrestling is very Indian and unlike boxing it’s not about hurting your opponent. It’s not a bloodied sport. It’s about felling your opponent through technique."
2. A Unique Love Interest
In the film, Sultan meets Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), the daughter of a local wrestling coach. Also a wrestler, Aarfa dreams of competing in the Olympics.
Anushka Sharma found the role of Aarfa somewhat challenging physically. First, she didn't feel that she looked like a wrestler. Second, she didn't want to use a body double so had to learn the skills herself. Third, the physical proximity of fighting was uncomfortable. In an Indian Express article, she explained:
"...since it’s a contact sport, you are in very close contact to somebody. So the first time I had to wrestle, I had to do it with a guy. And I was uncomfortable because in wrestling your head is in someone’s armpits, someone’s face is on your waist which is really uncomfortable. So I was like what is happening. How will I do it? So I was hesitant initially. I then saw videos of girls wrestling guys which is on Youtube and I was like if I have to do it then I will have to go for it fearlessly."
After six weeks of intense training for her role, learning different wrestling techniques including grappling holds, joint locks, throws and takedowns, Anushka overcame all these concerns and went all-in for her role. Her confidence shines through as she overcomes competitor after competitor.
As Aarfa, Anushka Sharma is a perfect match for Sultan because she is fully understands not only the skill and technique required for the sport, but the personal strength necessary to become a champion.
3. A Shooting Star
Aarfa challenges Sultan to become something more than he is. He pushes himself beyond his comfort zone and becomes a confident and capable professional wrestler.
While reaching for his goal, he and Aarfa fall in love and marry. As Sultan attains Olympic status, the now pregnant Aarfa is left behind.
The film places Sultan at real-world wrestling competitions including the London Olympics of 2012. Sultan competes, wins medals and rides his shooting star into the world of marketing where his persona alone can launch a thousand products.
Tragedy strikes. Aarfa blames Sultan for focusing more on his wrestling career than on the needs of his fledgling family and separates from him.
Sultan begins his personal fight to redeem himself and regain his standing with Aarfa. "The common thing between life and the ring is at times they both put you down so you can rise again," says Sultan. It is this fight that takes him into the world of mixed martial arts.
4. The Return of the King
Because of his personal struggles, Sultan has been out of the wrestling ring for some time. Out of shape and considered past his prime, Sultan must learn a whole new way of fighting. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport that allows both striking and wrestling, both standing and on the ground, using techniques from other combat sports and martial arts
Just as Sultan worked hard to become a contender in the ring, Salman Khan worked hard to build his character. He gained and lost weight. He leveraged his familial ties to wrestling by getting tips and techniques from his wrestling cousins in Indore. He also underwent rigorous training with international fight choreographer Larnell Stovall, former world and international champion in fighting, weapons and kata forms.
What you see on the screen is the real deal and the physicality of the performance took a toll on Salman Khan. According to an article in Times of India, Salman was filming and training simultaneously which led to non-stop fighting for hours every day. He explained:
"Most of the shots in the film are real, wrestlers and Mixed Martial Arts, there are no cables and because of them, there is lot of contact happening in the film. When they lift you and put to the ground it used to hurt, they were of 120-130 kilos [260-280 pounds]."
Ali Abbas Zafar confirmed this, saying,
" [Salman Khan] practised mixed martial arts for two months and by the end of that time, he knew every move in the akhada. It was like shooting choreographed fights. Salman also gained and lost huge amounts of weight in very little time. There were days when he would visit the doctor before coming to the shoot. The doctor would advise him against shooting, then I’d also offer to cancel the shoot, but he’d insist that we carry on as planned."
Salman Khan returns to the screen as a new kind of action hero, one who leverages his own mad skills to carry out the carefully choreographed sequences.
5. Exceptional Performances
While Sultan is best explained as a sports film, it is fundamentally a love story - boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again - and it is the performances that make this otherwise formulaic film uniquely powerful.
As the headstrong Aarfa, Anushka Sharma is honest and direct. Aarfa's strength builds Sultan up to become a better person. Even after they separate, Sultan and Aarfa secretly continue to love each other through the pain. As Aarfa's father and wrestling coach, Kumud Mishra sees potential in Sultan while MMA coach Randeep Hooda challenges that potential. As MMA promoter Aakash, Amit Sadh finds himself pleasantly surprised and impressed with Sultan's determination and skill. Along the way, Govind (Anant Vidhaat Sharma) stands beside Sultan through good times and bad - a tried and true best friend.
But it is Salman Khan's performance as the "Romeo wrestler" that drives the story. As a simple man driven to succeed because of the woman he loves, Salman Khan makes you laugh, weep and cheer. It is his ability to show strength through weakness that inspires, making the film one you'll want to watch again and again.
The following playlist features teasers, trailers and some background videos about the film Sultan.
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