For several years now, the occasional Bollywood film has broken into the Top 10 of American box office rankings despite only meager attention from American media outlets. Little Rock has contributed to the success of Indian cinema in the United States, with the Rave screening various Bollywood blockbusters, the latest of which is “Sultan,” a sports drama starring Salman Khan, a cross between George Clooney and Burt Reynolds who is perhaps the most successful actor working in Hindi-language cinema. This movie is an absolute must-see, a rip-roaring tale of respect and redemption that will restore the faith in cinema you lost with every iteration of the CGI-superhero.
“Sultan” is actually two movies in one — the rise of the sports legend from a humble background, and the return of said legend to the arena many years after his expiration date. The movie opens with Aakash Oberoi (Amit Sadh) in financial straits, his attempts to bring mixed martial arts to India floundering for lack of interest. On the advice of his father, he travels to the remote village of Haryana to try to recruit wrestling legend Sultan Ali Khan (Salman Khan) to spur some public interest. However, the Sultan he finds is a washed-up figure, working his rote job at the local water department and standing each night outside the temple to catch a glimpse of the woman he loves, a woman who acts as if he does not exist.
Aakash meets Govind (Anant Vidhaat Sharma), Sultan’s oldest friend, and learns the wrestler’s story. As it turns out, Sultan was nothing but an illiterate farmer’s son who also worked installing satellite dishes until he met Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), daughter of the local wrestling coach and a wrestler herself. She spurns the advances of our hero until, through a series of training montages, he proves himself worthy of her love. They marry, and she becomes pregnant, ending temporarily her own ambitions, and she throws herself into his advancement on the world stage, on through the Olympics and various world championships.
But our humble farmer’s son grows more and more arrogant with each success, until one day he returns from abroad to confront a tragedy that he could have prevented had he not aimed so high and prioritized his family instead. Aarfa refuses to speak to her husband ever again, while Sultan, utterly distraught, gives up wrestling to take the humble job at the water department and stand each night outside the temple, only to be slighted by the wife he still adores.
Into this story steps Aakash with his offer of money and a chance at redemption. What follows is not only another series of training montages as the over-the-hill wrestler struggles to prepare himself for a strange sport and younger competitors, but also an emotional drama of dreams deferred, of a man and wife struggling with their worst nightmare, of the possibility of forgiveness and what it means to fight against fate and love and time.
“Sultan” clocks in at nearly three hours, but it never feels long; no moment ever feels just tacked on to the story for effect. Granted, the song-and-dance offerings of “Sultan” are tepid compared to the average Bollywood spectacle of choreography, but Ali Abbas Zafar’s direction, during those rare musical numbers, feels organic, with the camera joining the action a la Alfonso Cuaron rather than observing from some remove. Too, Salman Khan and Anuska Sharma imbue their respective characters with such strength and wit as to make them genuine equals in the story.
“Sultan” is the rarest movie around — the action tearjerker that will have you crying at the same time that you grit your teeth and clench your fists in imitation of the fight you see taking place on the big screen. This is a wrestling movie with heart, a sports film that transcends the genre, a story that reminds you of the truly unique power of cinema.