The following review was written by SMIW’s Bruce Vain.
Well, well, well. What do you know? A Sultan film review on this website? That can’t go so well, can it?
Especially since we ripped bhaijaan a new one merely days ago – when he made that by-now-hall-of-shame-worthy remark? But here’s the thing, we can’t make stuff up to rip him apart, can we? This review can only objectively critique the contents of the film, and if it’s actually not terrible, then maybe it will have us eating our own hat? (I’ve always wondered if that expression has an entirely different meaning in Hawaii, where hats have fruit on them.)
Truth be told, it’s not like reviews or critics matter to Salman Khan – sadly.
Nor will they ever do. Because, till the time he continues to enjoy the unwavering, irrational support of his fans, he can even get away with murder (oh, wait)! To these fans, it doesn’t matter what Salman’s films are about, who else is in them and, what message they send to the society.
As long as they support him, every single film featuring the superstar who fails at Being Human, will be a massive money spinner.
But then, there are others. Others like us, who believe that cinema and its heroes should at least try to make an effort to change narratives and break stereotypes – with films that move and progress with time, not stay stuck in it. The problem with Salman Khan, however, is that he tries very hard to give the impression that he doesn’t believe in those concepts.
The bhai of Bollywood is unabashedly and publicly unapologetic about his irresponsible behaviour, his bullying ways and his insensitive comments. He actually makes an effort to convey to his fans that being human does not mean being sorry.
He goes the extra mile to let everyone know he doesn’t care about breaking stereotypes and in fact, does everything he can to strengthen them.
So, it’s extremely important that those of us who do care, keep pointing out his flaws and the widespread impact they have on the society – till enough people wake up and smell the Shit Guy (you’ll get that reference in a minute).
So, with that in mind, here it is – a feminist review of Sultan:
Sultan, the film, has many sides of Sultan, the character; which incidentally is a lot like Salman, the person. It is often said that Salman Khan is so ordinary an actor that he can only play himself in every one of his roles. With Sultan, that adage has never been truer. In the film, we see the various sides of Sultan transcending with personality traits of Salman. The most prominent of those – at least in the first half – is the stalker.
Picture this, Sultan immediately falls for Anushka Sharma’s Aarfa when she yells at him and beats him back for slapping her (wtf?) because he ran into her motorcycle while trying to catch a fallen kite. Perfect love story already, right?
But wait, it gets better.
When Aarfa clearly and repeatedly tells him she is not interested in him, he does the right thing by tracing her identity, showing up at her friend’s wedding and then, finally showing up at her father’s wrestling school.
Clearly, that is the kind of lesson in romantic pursuit that one of the most popular and followed actors in the country needs to teach its young men.
S(h)it Guy Sultan
In one of their initial meetings, the Delhi returned, English speaking Aarfa tells the purebred Haryanvi Sultan that in pop English, a stalker like him is called a ‘Shit Guy’ (pronounced Sit because of Aarfa’s Haryanvi roots, which even college in Delhi couldn’t completely erode). Sultan has never heard the word ‘shit’ in his life and confuses it for a compliment – until his best friend Gopal decodes the term using a dictionary. But, while Sultan refutes the title when he learns its actual meaning, there couldn’t have been a more apt way to describe his character through the entire first half. Sample this:
After repeatedly being stalked, Aarfa makes it clear she isn’t looking for a relationship but agrees to be just friends – something Sultan immediately assumes as the first step towards love and proceeds to tell his entire posse that Aarfa is, in fact, his girlfriend.
Now, what message does that kind of douchebaggery send? That it’s okay to stalk a girl till she agrees to have some sort of relationship with you (which she will, because in Bollywood-world, a woman doesn’t have the option to completely say no to man’s advances) and when she does, it’s okay to assume she will eventually start dating you (and tell everyone she already is in the meanwhile)? That message is only emphasized further in the story line, as Aarfa eventually does fall for Sultan and agrees to marry him.
Wow, talk about creating a narrative that fails to stand up to the culture of entitlement. Sit Guy indeed.
What’s a Salman Khan movie without its sexist jokes and stereotypes?
On arriving at a blood donation camp organised by Aarfa, the Shit Guy finds it necessary to joke how she has started sucking his blood even without becoming his wife. While in a vomit inducing father son heart-to-heart, Sultan’s dad makes sure to pass on the pearls of wisdom that “Har nakaam mard ke peeche ek aurat hoti hai.” (There’s a woman behind every unsuccessful man).
Then, of course, there are the romantic tidbits laced with archaic gender roles:
Sultan lounging on a charpai, all snug in a blanket as Aarfa brings him tea in pouring rain. Sultan chilling with his kite flying buddies as Aarfa makes cow-dung cakes. Oh, the romance!
At this point, it’s important to point out that Aarfa and Sultan are both national level amateur wrestlers and, if anything, she is more seasoned and experienced than him.
Yet, in their private life together, he gets lounging and kite flying while she gets cow-dung cakes.
Sorry, Not Sorry Sultan
Like I said before. Sultan, the character mirrors Salman, the person in many ways. He is egoistical, brash, arrogant and, in one reel-imitates-real moment during the film, he even slaps a journalist for asking uncomfortable questions.
But most remarkable (and most Salman-like), is his relentless lack of remorse; something that stays on through different occasions – from being confronted by Aarfa for slapping her and then later, for telling his buddies that she is his girlfriend; to leaving his heavily pregnant wife behind – even when she asks him to stay and then finally; for not being around when his family needed him most – leading to his newborn child’s death.
The entire time, Sultan reacts in different ways – by grinning through it, shrugging it off and finally, hanging his head and walking away. But, he doesn’t – even once, apologise for his mistakes. In fact, in the climactic reunion – despite being the one to get the shittier end of the bargain – it’s Aarfa who shows up by Sultan’s side, moved perhaps by her family and friends’ constant pleas to forgive him.
But, even at that point, all Sultan can do is make the typical Shit Guy comment about it was he too, who lost a child, not just her. Predictably enough, Aarfa forgives self important Sultan without him apologising at all.
Almost There Arfa
The one (almost) saving grace in the entire film is recurring shades of feminism in Aarfa’s character. She is a fierce sportswoman who understands fully well that she has to make it on her own terms in the world, despite being a woman (that’s how it’s done, Mitron!) and, while it won’t be easy, it doesn’t mean she will give up her life long dream of winning an Olympic medal.
In one of the most powerful lines of the film, Aarfa remarks how her father wanted a son but the age of women is here, and so, the men need to watch out.
However, the film-makers (Yash Raj Films and Director Ali Abbas Zafar) make sure that Aarfa’s initially feminist character goes through the usual tropes of Indian cinema to a point where she does indeed choose to give up her life long dream in favour of bearing Sultan’s child – a son to be specific – who he wants to grow and be just like him (oh, joy). Furthermore, she goes against her entire personality of a focused, uncompromising woman in a confusing bit of character development, when she suddenly agrees to marry Sultan – the moment he becomes a successful wrestler.
Last but not the least, in an age when male actors like Amir Khan, Farhan Akhtar and Salman himself go through months of conditioning and training to look the part of a sportsperson and their journey is tirelessly promoted by producers to the media – it is extremely disappointing to see the film-makers of Sultan not asking Anushka to do the same for her role as a wrestler. Instead, she retains her ramp model physique and appears completely muscle-free the entire time.
I guess character-realism is only for the men.
One can only wonder why the female lead who plays a wrestler didn’t train to look like one while the male lead who also plays a wrestler not just did so, but even made casual rape references about it.
That’s Bollywood’s unending need to conform to the stereotypical female body image for you.
In The End
Eventually, Sutlan may be Salman’s most successful films yet and that, is an underlying commentary on where we are headed as a society. A culture is a reflection of people and, media is one of the most visible showcases of culture.
When Sultan’s sexist and regressive dialogues earn loud cheers and whistles while Aarfa’s punchline about women empowerment is met by sounds of crickets chirping, you know the battlefield is wider than the gap between the lead pair’s age.
In fact, even now, there will be many who read this review and go, “But this is just how things are in Haryana, in India and, in the world! The film is just a reflection of how society actually is!”
And that, is exactly why we need to call it out. Till there comes a time when it isn’t.
Spoilt Modern Rating
1/2 Cow Dung Cake.
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