Sulthan movie review: Karthi's film suffers from confused messaging with a dash of masala
Without a strong moral core, Sulthan neither evokes empathy nor inspires respect for what the film's protagonist stands for
A pregnant woman is told that the foetus is like Abhimanyu from the Mahabharata, listening to everything she says and learning from it. When the baby is born, they give him the nickname Sulthan. He grows up and claims that he's Lord Krishna standing with the Kauravas. A villager calls him Karuppan, a guardian diety. A few months later, the villain calls him a 100-thalai Ravanan (100-headed Ravanan). "Naanum Ravanan thaan-da" (I am Ravanan too) he adds, for good measure. Sulthan, Bakkiyaraj Kannan's latest film featuring Karthi, is neither Mahabharata nor Ramayana — it's a standard Tamil masala fare, hardly moving or entertaining.
Sulthan is the story of an eponymous hero (whose real name is Vikram), a robotics engineer from Bombay, stuck with the task of rescuing his father's henchmen, all 100 of them, from extra-judicial murder by the police. Karthi, who plays Vikram/Sulthan, has said in many interviews that he was so impressed by this premise that he agreed to do the film immediately. I wish he, or just about anybody else, heard how the rest of the story goes!
Because barring the premise, the film is old wine in an old bottle. Sulthan urges all his men to move to a village to protect farmers from an evil overlord. Fight. He meets the heroine — a fair damsel who looks awfully out of place in the distraught village — and falls in love. Song. The overlord has a corporate boss with an unbearable Tamil accent. Punch dialogue. Someone close to the hero dies. Sentiment. Villain returns. Climax fight. Subam.
To be fair, there is nothing wrong with the formula itself. After all, these are beats that have worked since time immemorial. Where Sulthan falls short is in what happens between the beats. Without a strong moral core, the film neither evokes empathy for those Sulthan seeks to save, nor does it inspire respect for what he stands for.
For instance, while the entire film revolves around agriculture, the farmers in the village are treated only as poverty porn: Unempowered, dejected and waiting around for someone to come and rescue them. We don't understand these individuals, their needs or their prerogatives; we simply know they're suffering. The film reduces the life of a farmer to a montage song. Perhaps we should just be glad that there is minimal lecturing about organic or traditional farming. To the farmers, Sulthan is god incarnate, no nuance necessary.
The henchmen are treated no better; we can hardly tell one from the other. In fact, the film makes a deliberate choice to present them as this caricature. There is a scene where they are aroused from sleep by the smell of blood — they are all shown sniffing frantically. In another scene, Sulthan makes them all kneel down in front of him and lectures them with a stick in hand. To the henchmen, Sulthan is the benevolent dictator, they might revolt, but they return in surrender.
The film wants us to believe that it preaches the futility of violence — and that violence begets more violence. But, in reality, it leaves us with a confused message about who is allowed to be violent.
The problem extends to how the film is written as well. Bakkiyaraj Kannan borrows generously from cinema lore — a Bheemboy like a bodyguard, an educated son of a crime lord returning from Bombay, henchmen trying to hide their rowdyism from the aforementioned educated son, he then turning violent himself right about the interval block and so on.
The humour is misplaced, most of it is about shaming Yogi Babu's physical appearance. The romance is convoluted; there is stalking, even if a notch down from the director's previous outing Remo, that took a lot of flak for glorifying it. The villain(s) get little by way of background or motive. We are expected to take it for granted that the main villain is a corporate monster because we see him in suits and imported cars.
There are so many characters who come and go without a blip in the film's universe. Sathish appears as Sulthan's friend and disappears in no time. MS Bhaskar is wasted as the lawyer. Mayilsamy, blink and you'll miss him. Hareesh Peradi's scene could have been completed with newspaper clippings. Rashmika Mandanna, well, she gets a somewhat better deal than most women in commercial entertainers do.
The only person for whom the film works is perhaps Karthi. But, in spite of his best efforts and faith in this endeavour, Sulthan is confused and commonplace.
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