For Hindi cinema to become more self-aware and sophisticated in its appeal - as the modernising faction headed by writer-director-producer Anurag Kashyap would like - it may require the industry's pre-eminent stars to themselves display greater self-awareness, and leave behind the bouffant-haired hunks and eyelash-fluttering heroines of yore. This process of renewal, which has been fascinating to observe, began several years ago, but it's properly accelerated in the past twelve months, as audiences have cottoned onto what might at some stage be referred to as an Indian New Wave. After November's fitful Tamasha (a Resnais-like construction that saw Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor play variations of traditional Bollywood lovers) and April's intriguing Fan (where Shah Rukh Khan was a moviestar plagued by a stalker so representative of his own demons and insecurities he could only be played by Khan again), Sultan arrives as not nearly so knowing or playfully postmodern - it is, after all, a vehicle for Salman Khan, the least flexible of Bollywood's three King Khans. It nevertheless seems to riff on the lead's much-documented on- and off-screen travails: here is the story of a man of action having to overcome considerable personal adversity to regain his title as an ambassador for the Indian nation - and its movie-watching people.
Phase one of the Khan charm offensive came with last year's Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the Eid megahit in which the star successfully (and rather touchingly) shepherded a small child and the audience through a version of the Kashmir conflict. Phase two, which opened in the same slot this year, is effectively Khan's own The Wrestler, casting the star as Sultan Ali Khan, a humble lad from farming stock who uses his considerable bulk to become both a Commonwealth and Olympic champion before falling out of favour. The first half, an extended flashback from this moment of disgrace, gives us the backstory: how he first hit the gym upon being rejected by Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), a promising female wrestler, and eventually came to win not just several major championships but eventually this young woman's heart and hand in marriage. The second half is all comeback, wondering just what a fatneck might do with himself were he to gain the world - or the world title, at least - and suddenly lose everything he holds dearest to him.
Where there was a certain novelty in seeing Khan being sent in to sort out a real-world situation in Bajrangi Bhaijaan - and, indeed, in watching him wrestle with India's patriarchal system in last Diwali's lavish Prem Ratan Dhan Payo - Sultan operates along a conventional sports-movie arc. The world of the unfaked, Greco-Roman school of wrestling has been underexplored on screen, granted, and director Ali Abbas Zahar has the full Yash Raj budget to come up with convincing recreations of the Delhi Commonwealth and London Olympic Games. Once again, though, we're sitting through multiple examples of knockdowns and countouts as life-metaphors, backed up with the usual fast-cut training montages. (Zahar can at least punch up Sultan's country-boy background here, showing his hero not straining in some sweaty backstreet gym, rather pulling tractors and outrunning steam trains, all the while cultivating a roguish Oliver Reed moustache.) The stakes are so clearly established by the interval that there's only one trajectory the second half can follow.
Still, as January's Rocky reboot Creed demonstrated, these things can still stir an audience if done well, and Sultan is done pretty well, all things considered. It's way too long and prone to over-emphasis: far too much of the first half given over to illustrating just what an essentially great guy Khan (actor and character) is, at least one utterly superfluous love song, a second half premised on our hero's superhuman capacity to survive relentless beatings. Two elements keep us interested, though. The first is Khan himself, who's always been an imposing physical presence - here, even the muscles on his shoulder muscles appear to have muscles - but who has, over this recent run of films, become a markedly subtler performer: a director wouldn't hand his leading man this many close-ups if he felt the guy didn't know what to do with them. He retains that adenoidal quality most closely associated with The Sopranos's James Gandolfini, and uses it to sketch a character who while still not the brightest bulb - he first takes Aarfa's brush-off "shit guy" as a compliment - is at least a notch or two more intuitive than his bhai in Bajrangi, working the ring much as Khan the actor has come to work the moviegoing public.
The metatextual bonus - crystallised in the late image of Sultan wrestling with himself - is the tentative suggestion that the actor might just be using this latest vehicle to grapple with his own persona; that the humbling of Sultan Khan just before the intermission may, in fact, refer to the humbling of Salman Khan in real life. (Both involve a tragic, and almost certainly avoidable, loss of life.) If, dramatically speaking, it's something of a pity that his fictional avatar should thereafter undergo the slickest of rebranding - turning up in the octagonal MMA ring left abandoned at the end of last year's Brothers and becoming a license to print money - this development nonetheless reflects the manner in which Khan has reclaimed his own title as a box-office heavyweight, and somewhere within the triumphalism, you detect an admission on the star's part that, yes, at some point in the not-too-distant past, his ego may have got the better of him. It takes a big man to do that, just as surely as it takes a big man to carry piles of bricks over his shoulders - and a star with a sense of irony and humility to pull off all of the above in a film that also sees his character flounce off the set of a post-Olympic promo shoot, muttering "I'm a wrestler, not an actor". When even a lunk of Salman Khan's dimensions shows signs of becoming self-aware, something's very definitely afoot.
Sultan is now showing in cinemas nationwide.