By way of disclaimers, let me state at the onset, I know nothing of movie making, nor am I a professional writer. But I write about Bollywood because as an ordinary woman I want our culture to also be a reflection of my dreams.
Sultan is of course a Salman Khan movie all the way, yet it begins promisingly enough. Anushka Sharma’s character, Arfaa is an active go-getter. She’s a national level athlete in top form and her dream is to win an Olympic gold in wrestling. She beats the crap out of louts, physical violence being the only way to send a message to men that a woman means business. But, her fire and ambition last into about a quarter of the movie, or maybe less. She then proceeds to transform into a passive, quiet backdrop. Because, love!
In a crucial scene, where the downslide begins- or the movie shows its true colours, depending on whether you’re a Salman Khan fan or not- Arfaa becomes pregnant. Her father, who is also her coach, is shocked by the news and expresses disappointment. The dreams and ambitions she is chasing, aren’t hers alone; they have been nurtured by her dad. Arfaa, when she comes out of the clinic after finding out about her pregnancy, is also taken aback and feels betrayed. What is to become of her aspirations?But then she looks at Sultan, her husband, dancing for joy at the news and she changes her mind about what will bring her true satisfaction: care of family and child rearing, of course. The look of happiness on her husband’s face is her gold medal, it seems. Yes, I did look for a wall to bash my head into, but I didn’t fancy tripping over a multitude of legs of my co-viewers to get to it.
Hand on my heart, for a moment during that scene, when she pulls out the Olympic selections form, and glances at it, I held my breath. We are so bereft of women with agency on screen, that I’d probably been projecting at Arfaa for a while. But then her belly grows, and the alternate movie brewing in my head, came to a screeching halt. The one in which Afraa undergoes an abortion and keeps chasing her dreams, doesn’t really happen. The realities of Indian cinema are yet to catch up with us silly romantic feminists.
Arfaa is beaten by biology and fades away. Her transformation is accomplished in one knock out punch. Or should that be knocked-up punch? She is transformed into wife, mother, motivator and inspiration for her man. She gives up her career. Reduced, a shell of her former self, all her dreams are transferred to her man.
That’s where all meaning in the movie ceases. It becomes solely a vehicle for Salman Khan and he plays the role he’s done to death in movie after movie- the golden hearted softie who bashes up people for a living. You could cut open a couple of cartons of viagra and it wouldn’t be a patch on holding up dysfunction like this movie holds up masculinity-artificially, saturated with every trope imaginable.
Recently, there was a big brouhaha about a casual remark made by Salman Khan, comparing a punishing work schedule with rape. Interestingly, the remark was made during the promotion of this movie. He was almost crucified for the crass comment, specially on social media. TV panels went into overdrive, criticising him. Yet a movie of this size and impact which thousands have watched and many more will, blithely promotes rape culture but there’s nary a peep from any of us. Yay for patriarchy!
As for the medieval ideas on consent and relationships, the less said the better. Stalking, portrayed as wooing, is old hat for Bollywood. The message, conveyed by Hindi cinema for decades is repeated yet again: a man has only to chase a woman doggedly enough for her to give in to his advances. Consent? What’s that?
Arfaa agrees to friendship, which Sultan misreads as romantic attachment. In his words ‘tum bike pe chipak ke sare din mere sath ghoomogi to log to yahi sochenge na ki tum meri girlfriend ho’. It’s always about the opinions of the ‘log’, the village people, the community, the family, but never the person concerned.
In what follows, Arfaa upbraids him for his false impressions, but an opportunity to establish consent as a basis for relationships, is let slip. The assumptions on his part are ignored, the focus brought to bear on his personality.
Any wonder, then, that Indian men continue to believe that women owe them their time and affections; it is theirs for the asking. Rape culture not only flourishes, but is also actively propagated in films like Sultan.
The sexism comes thick and fast with “humare yahan aisa nahin hota hai” repeatedly used to stress that people don’t get divorced and that marriages last forever. Much like most of Bollywood, women’s agency is an alien concept, unheard of.
For me, most heartbreaking of all was the arc of the narrative and where it leads the two protagonists. Arfaa, a strong, opinionated, ambitious woman is reduced to a shadow, lurking behind the scenes for the major part of the movie, bereft of agency. Sultan, who begins as a bumbling buffoon, transitions in no time, into a world class wrestler, breezing through every competition imaginable. When will our cinema catch up with real life, so we can start attaching our dreams to it?
I kept wondering throughout, how a smart actress and emerging producer like Anushka, with an admirable body of work to her credit, could agree to do a movie like this. Is it because a star vehicle like this gets you more eyeballs? Maybe that will help her make that alternate movie which was going on in my head. Need new story ideas, Ms Sharma?
Disclaimer: This review was originally published on the writer’s blog here.
Featured Image Credit: A Vigil Idiot, Buzzfeed