Caution: Spoilers ahead.
As far as Salman Khan is concerned, Sultan proves that his recent public idiocy, which provided sufficient fodder for India’s national pastime – outrage – wasn’t a one-off. By the time he had gotten his foot out of his mouth, we’d already pounced upon him for inadvertently revealing how deep-rooted misogyny and ‘rape culture’ are in the Indian masculine psyche. Unfortunately, Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan is a silver screen expression of the exact same thing.
Sultan isn’t merely a lazily-written film, but it’s also shamefully patriarchal, unabashedly propagating the same kind of ‘no means yes’ behaviour that, say, a Tere Naam would have done; the kind of film in which, at one point, the wrestler Sultan gains the nickname ‘Romeo’ because of a romantic song he sings, which goes viral. (Romeo, of course, ceased to be Shakespearean in India eons ago, devolving into a badge of honour for the quintessential romantic ‘lafanga’. It’s what fans of Bhai would tattoo across their chest, one would imagine.)
No, Sultan isn’t a disappointment because of what message Salman Khan gives out through it. (That’s his game, bro.) The film’s greatest disappointment, surprisingly enough, comes in the form of Anushka Sharma.
At the start of 2016, this writer had written a piece on Firstpost, saluting Anushka Sharma as the real star of 2015, despite her contemporaries Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone notching up international fame and acclaim.
The reason for that was because of what the feisty young actor stands for in public. She has been vocal about gender inequality and the wage gap in the film industry; she was gutsy enough to produce and headline a feminist slasher film like NH10; and in general, her film choices in the last few years have shown her to be a person who attempts to walk her talk.
This writer still stands by the opinion expressed in that piece; yet, her choosing to do Sultan is a step backwards for the very thing Anushka Sharma is ostensibly a symbol of – gender equality.
Sample this: Anushka plays Aarfa, a young girl who has been training for years as a wrestler, because she dreams of bringing home an Olympic gold for India. So much so that, when she notices the neighbourhood manchild wastrel showering attention on her with nuptial intent, she categorically tells him that she has one focus only – wrestling. Not surprisingly, Salman’s Sultan, his roadside male ego in tow, seems to spot consent in her rebuke.
Soon enough, Sultan (who is in his 30s) takes up wrestling only because his masculinity was hurt. He excels at it (obviously), which instantly turns Anushka’s heart. Before long, they’re married. Meanwhile, Sultan is convinced that his ‘mardaangi’ can only produce a male child, which it does (obviously). Horror of horrors, Aarfa discovers she’s pregnant around the same time she receives a letter confirming her selection for the 2012 Olympics in London.
What happens next is basically the Indian patriarchal establishment’s wet dream.
First, her father (who also happens to be her coach) blames *her* for the pregnancy. Then Aarfa, a girl who has spent blood, sweat, tears and years chasing her Olympic medal dream, takes one look at an overjoyed Sultan exulting after the news of her pregnancy, before she says to her distraught father, ‘What greater medal could I get than this.’
That’s it. Years of ambition, thrown away in the most depressingly regressive way possible. (Firstpost’s live tweet review feed about Sultan spoke about this very scene as being ‘portrayed in the sweetest possible manner’. Ahem, no. There’s nothing remotely sweet about that.)
Now there can be two ways in which fans and apologists would attempt to defend this scene. The first would be that this reflects what the mind-set in rural India is. True, it does. But if anyone tries to hide behind realism to explain anything in *this* film, then let’s talk about how the film shows Sultan, that no-gooder with barely a few months of training, win an Olympic gold for India in wrestling. Not only is that irrationally idiotic, it’s also downright disrespectful to anyone who has won an Olympic gold. (Or any professional, passionate sportsperson, for that matter.)
The other argument would be, ‘But it’s supposed to be an entertaining commercial film yaar. Why are you trying to look for sensibilities here? If you want empowerment of women, go watch Queen!’
To such people, this writer would like to ask this: Would the film, which anyway milks Salman and his image for plenty, have been a lesser film if, for instance, they’d shown a brief conversation between husband and wife, where they talk about their future plans? Even if they still agreed, for the sake of society, to have Aarfa sacrifice her dream and keep the child, wouldn’t some conflict around the decision have given out a subtle message to those hanging on to Bhaijaan’s every word and action?
Ironically enough, just a few scenes before this one, Aarfa gives Sultan a lecture on how the place of women in Indian society is undergoing a change, how they no longer hide behind their ‘ghoonghat’. This, and other measly attempts in the film, are like the retraction that Salman managed immediately after his ‘raped woman’ remark – it does nothing to soften the overall male-pandering message of the film.
Sultan repeatedly glorifies all that has been identified as problematic in the messages around gender that our cinema gives out. In another scene, when Sultan sees Aarfa holding a blood donation camp, he mutters, ‘She hasn’t yet become my wife, but she has already starting sucking my blood.’ You’ve probably read something quite similar, forwarded by a gleeful uncle on your family Whatsapp group. (And if you *are* one of those uncles, shame on you.)
Expecting Salman (and those waiting to monetize his incredible mass appeal) to understand these nuances is a laughable thought. But to think that Anushka Sharma willingly signed this film on, despite it being neither a role that would challenge her mettle as an actor, nor a character that demanded her presence, is utterly sad. True, as a professional actor she is free to make her own career choices, and perhaps the thought behind signing a Salman Khan film would be the widening of her ‘mass’ appeal.
Yet, this choice is at blatant cross-purposes with her public persona as a champion of gender equality; as someone who’ll fearlessly call out sexism, misogyny and patriarchy in public. Fans of Anushka Sharma (and Salman Khan) may find a way to defend it in the bubble in their head, but this hypocrisy on her part is indefensibly disappointing. Then again, perhaps hypocrisy is an integral characteristic of being human.