Sultan-An actor is born out of a superstar

With his back facing us, he struts out of the dark alley to the ring like a celestial being, little streaks of sunlight pouring from the shafts above in quantity just enough to fashion the contours of his silhouette with gold dust as the chant in the background goes-“Khoon mein tere Mitti, Mitti mein tera Khoon; Upar Allah, Neeche Dharti; Beech mein tera Junoon“.
The crowds in the movie become delirious as Sultan makes a grand entrance,as the crowd in the theatre goes berserk at the first sight of Salman. Salman’s playing his favourite alter ego- that of a man child with a magnetic charm for the infinite time to the same effect; this time he’s called Sultan.

A quintessential Bhai movie is nothing but an elaborate vanity exercise comprising of-catchy numbers, quirky signature steps and fourth wall breaking sequences with iconic lines when Bhai is done breaking some bones. Sultan does all this and much more. It gives us a protagonist who is not saddled with the task of catering to the legion of fans of the star alone.  He is a fallible person, who crumbles under the impact of defeat. He is an illiterate who knows to handle the rejection of a woman with dignity. He is a desi wrestler who’s Ko move is punctuated with an obeisance.Sultan manages the hitherto  unmanageable feat of trespassing beyond the “Salman” persona to an unchartered territory called acting, that Bajrangi Bhaijaan almost managed to do.

The road to redemption is staged onscreen in an invigorating fashion through the subtle deployment of a few processes as metaphorical devices . Insulted by the woman he loves for the dearth of purpose in his life, he embarks on a journey of self discovery .He starts off with a clear-face shakily,tilling a field singlehandedly to chasing beside a local train. The train zooms past him and there’s a lot left to plow in the field.
As he makes progress; he’s grown a thick stubble now. He almost manages to match the train and the field has significantly been cleared; his limits stretched.
By the end of his metamorphosis- the stubble has turned a marked moustache; he races past the train with the field burning ready for cultivation. A new man is born.

There is this point in the movie where a worn out Sultan, past his prime is trying to stage a comeback. He takes his shirt off before the mirror.What he sees is an image of a man who is not just out of shape, but buried beneath the debris of despair and defeat. He implodes with anguish as even his shirt wouldn’t peacefully let him sneak in to it. It is one of the rare occasions where our hearts go out in unison for this man, overlooking the star portraying him.
Sedentary at soul, he is this lackadaisical individual who wakes up to his potential after instigation. For success has often been his retaliation to instigation- a recurring motif in his life. If Aarfa instigated him with her insult to turn him into a world renown wrestler earlier, a coach now calls him a dead person from the ringside while he gets beaten to pulp, trying to resurrect his carrier in a new form after a sabbatical.
Phat comes the killer move – as if in response – as he lays still his opponent.He springs out of the ring defiantly to tell this man, verbally now that he might have quit wrestling, but never stopped fighting.

The romance isn’t a gratuitous embellishment to ratify song sequences. It constitutes the very heart and soul of the movie.It gives us his love interest Aarfa, an ambitious-strong woman, an Adrian to his Rocky(just that she’s is a wrestler much before he wanted to be one.) She just isn’t there as his prosaic arm candy, but insinuates the necessary friction in his life from time to time.
There’s a beautiful trait she exhibits every time when Sultan makes progress towards something great; she turns away from the happening solicitously. She doesn’t want to spectate, but rather participate vicariously in his travails moment by moment. She does this when he enrols as a green horn wrestler to take part in a state level championship. She does this while coaching kids with her back facing the TV playing his MMA matches.

These finer aspects go on to enhance the relatability of the larger than life proceedings, the stuff that we seldom expect out of a Salman starrer. There is this scene where he watches his wedding night’s video after dinner in isolation. As the shot segues from the video to his room, he’s  fallen asleep watching himself fall asleep in the video. We get to know that the nostalgia held in the video is his lullaby.
For once the sight of Bhai is not just the excuse to wolf whistle alone, but a calming influence.

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When the heart goes, “Dil Chahta Hai”

Posterity is the hallmark of a great work of art. It is the ability to endear to the same person with different relevance in different phases of his life, while being relevant enough to be passed from one generation to another to another, along with wealth,beliefs and ideologies.
Every piece of art worth its salt does capture one’s attention, in a few cases even the imagination, the relevance eventually dissolves along with efflux of time, with changing tastes and sensibilities acquainting one to newer things; weaving cobwebs over erstwhile preferences.
While most creations go through this circle to die a natural death, a rare few manage eternity,leaving behind an indelible impression as- a memorable anecdote, a bookmark to a chapter of life and eventually go on to become a part of popular culture.Dil Chahta Hai is one of those rare pieces of art.Earlier on in the movie there’s a scene in which Tara does a character study from his paintings, calling out Sid’s bluff, as he watches her bring down his wall brick by back, seeing right into his naked soul. That very moment, he finds an unlikely soulmate in this much elder woman with more than a few demons to slay herself. The entire sequence is held together by a soulful score that trickles down unhurriedly in tandem to the happenings, delicately leaving behind a watershed impression without endeavoring to impress. This scene segues into the blissful “Kaisi he yeh,rutu ki jisme…” song  with montages of Sid making a meticulous portrait of Tara.
A younger man falling for a complicated elder woman was rather an outrageous concept back then in my first viewing, when I was on the threshold of puberty. So I grazed around the fence and caught on to the other stuff that glittered, like Samir’s escapades, Aakash’s playfulness and obviously the”Koi kahe, kehta rahe” anthem.But after putting up a decade to my age, some beard to my face and a string of failed relationships, I exactly knew from where the slap fell on Aakash’s face. I had over the years, tiptoed to Sid’s side. I knew why the rift had to come form, Aakash was wrong and it was only fair that his comeuppance came in the form of unrequited love later.DCH is not only the gold standards of friendship. but a celebration of life itself. It manages the tight rope of staying relatable, while setting its issues against the pristine backdrop of its wealthy protagonists. You’ll not find a single poor looking person or place in the entire film, but not once will you find it to be a vanity fare with prosaic issues.
It fascinates me as to how the film feels like a multilayered concentric circle, peeling away into a newer layer with every iteration, taking you on a trip different from the last time.

If Aakash’s deadpan sarcasm appealed to me the last time, this time around after my break-up I found myself tumbling along with him on the picturesque streets of Melbourne, as he straddled along like a headless chicken; heart pulled out to a solicitous Sonu Nigam going “Ab kaha jaun Mein, Kisko Samjaun mein?“;as the painful melody of the Tanhayee song was inundating both our lives with the vicious shadow of separation.
I didn’t like it when he jokingly lied to her about seeing the fat opera singer- just like me- he didn’t know when to stop joking. I totally understood the gravitas of his dramatic confession on the night of her wedding; for men like him who’ve hidden behind the artifice of humour all their life fall down rather clumsily when confronted with a moment of truth. I was glad that he was able to win her back, unlike me.I exactly knew from where those tears rolled down his cheeks, as he apologized to Sid. For he had come a long way from ridiculing love to falling in it, to eventually acknowledging another man’s.

This time,it felt like a different movie than the last time,the epiphanies coming from over Aakash’s shoulders. It was all about getting to know him better.Next time around, it would probably be about just Samir alone and his misadventures with the opposite sex.

A phony like Dhoni

Even gods had bad days at the office, their thunder bolts wouldn’t come off or the spouses ditched their sides to mortal planets, over moral stand-offs.  Some demi gods, as invincible as they were had weak links in their anatomy as well, like Achilles for instance. Their flaws and the comeuppance that followed lent pulp of relatability for tons of mythology to be woven into scaffolding for many a religion. Take for instance the Ramayana, without the long exile we wouldn’t have gotten a well rounded hero in a man who wept, sweated and bled; but with grace and dignity on the face of the worst jokes fate was spinning around him. There’s a certain charm that comes in chronicling the lives of great men, who wore their failures as a badge of honour, while holding fort in the eye of the storm. Their character is often the halo we bend before with reverence.

Biopics are the closest we get into the heads of some fascinating men who walked the face of the earth, as long as their travails aren’t manicured in the altar of mass acceptance.
Given the number of promotional gigs Dhoni has been a part(a number,little higher than the press conferences he’s attended in his tenure as a captain); not to mention his vested interest that extends to the production of the movie; my hopes of an half honest account nose dove like his recent form.

So to be fair, I went in to the movie with a good quantity of predisposition, but was pleasantly surprised by the cinematic translation of the underdog story I had read and heard, albeit with a few liberties. I especially loved the portions involving his childhood and how the little men around him had chipped in to become cogs to make this giant wheel roll ahead. But as the movie progressed, the earthy smell got replaced by something that resembled the stench of vanity  and characters who hitherto spoke and felt like laymen started making pronouncements- juxtaposed with cricketing metaphors -out of Robin Sharma books. Soon the movie resembled a Nelson Mandela biopic attempt with Will Smith in Bad Boys swagger.

After a point the movie goes on autopilot, resembling a compilation of “greatest ODI knocks episodes” on ESPN, only that we’ve got stock footage of Anupam Kher‘s reaction shots instead of Harsha Bhogle and a doppelganger instead of Dhoni to contend.
The hyperbole level is dialed up further, as we come across more stock characters-all devotedly white without a speck of grey- nobler than the noblest, naiver than naive. The two women who constitute his love interest with their strict no PDA rules that would make Madhubala look like a vamp are embarrassing cliches with similar scopes-montages, songs, valentine’s predicament, lost poodle eye roll and commitment pangs.Rinse. Repeat.

And why on earth did the family and well wishers who are shown eternally glued to their television sets on match days, never in any of his match venues? Probably because the director didn’t want to meddle with the collective over-idealism in the movie.Another cardinal sin the makers commit is making a biopic during the times of Dhoni, with his relevance intact. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a fairly well made(dramatised) biopic could leverage on the advantage that it was made decades after his time. It could afford to have a brawny Farhan Akhtar who looked nothing like Milkha play him, throw facts to the wind and milk his blurry distance from public memory. Same reason, the initial portions with Dhoni’s childhood resonate the best, as they’re far removed from his time, with nothing but anticipation to yardstick their authenticity.

Largely entertaining,imaginative and well intentioned, it’s a tight rope walk between movie making and manipulation that the director manages to pull off, but when the heart of the protagonist is compromised, what we’re left with is the cry of an invigorating background score, instead of the rhythm of his heart.

We didn’t expect a chest-splayed-out-in-the-open account in the first place, but at least a banian level of honesty, with a doff of hat to cautious diplomacy. But we instead get seven layers of expensive clothes, all trying to pass off as his righteous skin.In the end as we begin to realise the vanity spin off the movie turned out to be,Sushant Singh appears like a metaphor to the movie; better looking,well built and ultra polished than the man himself.

Dangal- of wars,ringside and beyond

Mahavir Phogat leaves the sport at a point with some more to offer and some more to receive. This unrequited arc leaves an itch behind, that just wouldn’t go with the eflux of time. It just assumes another form; yearning. The yearning accrues into something bigger, a dream. A dream for a progeny- a son to complete his aspiration, carry his legacy forward. This dream keeps accruing in desperation through the birth of every daughter, till it comes to an eventual halt of acceptance at the birth of the fourth. He genuflects before destiny. A few years later, providence springs a surprise, in the form of his daughters. As it turns out, they’re wrestlers too like their big man. This is enough for him to dust off his locked dream. And he goes after it like a marooned man at a wild boar. Redemption was all that he wanted- the elusive Olympic gold -and a son was the means and not the end to it. Thus begins a fascinating journey of a father who goes on to live his dream vicariously through the achievements of his two daughters.

Dangal is set in a patriarchal system we’re so used to despising, just that instead of wrestling had it been cooking and if he was a cook and his ambition was to make it to Masterchef it wouldn’t have garnered the national veto of being an invigorating movie; especially for families with girl children.  As graceful and ambitious as the man was, his underlying chauvinism cannot be ignored. Mahavir manipulates his dreams into theirs, his aspirations to theirs at an impressionable age. They become the monks who’re forced into their renunciation to pursue his nirvana.
There’s something preposterous about sporting achievements- don’t know about other countries, but definitely in this part of the world -that colours personal accolades as pride of a nation. Bigger the arena, bigger its subversion into patriotism. Any sport is a spectator event dependent on the emotional gullibility of its fan to thrive. So naturally when a nation is pitted against another at its behest, the similar bifurcation happens in the stands as well. Cheering for a sportsperson representing a nation blurs into national solidarity. For it is a lower hanging fruit than paying taxes and taking bullets.

Can’t remember the last time a lead man walked the screen, so naked of vanity to bring credence to a portrayal.There’s a thin line that runs between egotism and mentoring, Aamir Khan’s Phogat treads this with absolute precision bringing dignity,grace and empathy to a grumpy man who speaks economically, while constantly finding himself torn between taming his inner demons and his little devils on mud pitches. It’s this ego he seeks validation when he spars with his non abiding elder daughter. Her tresses are shoulder length, her manoeuvres revised. She’s no longer the creature of his fashioning, his dreams have dissolved in her indulgences. Age doesn’t blunt his resentment- even if it has managed to make his weary limbs, clumsily slow -as he continues to spar. She comes on top and he loses. But this isn’t one of those vanilla tropes from mainstream films, where the after taste of a man’s loss to his own child is sweet. The sight of a muddy Phogat gasping for breath in humiliation as his elder daughter stands to taunt is anything, but that. Wrestling transcends beyond the pitch between the two.

There’s a scene where Phogat finds himself before a archaic table in a sports federation, he’s there to seek funds to support the training of his daughters. The officer in front talks to him in haryanvi almost. Almost because majority of his mouth is in the service of grinding a mothi laddoo from a box he’s received from the desperate man before him. He nonchalantly explains the paucity of funds with finger movements for neglected sports like wrestling, especially for women, mockingly. A frustrated Phogat begins to rant about why India fares poorly in the Olympics, when he’s cut midway by the officer’s abrupt exit for lunch.

It is scenes like this that bring out the odds that were stacked against the real Phogat, the numerous fights he had to take outside the ring- with the condescending villagers, the purists of the game, a sporting system content of mediocrity -to get his daughters into it.It is a story which needed to be told. Dangal tells this story with utmost integrity without circumventing around its protagonist like a demigod. Unlike the Dhoni biopic, which felt like a litany of montages shot for Chivas Regal promotions than a movie, Dangal doesn’t sidestep the grey shades of its central characters.It in fact for the most part keeps away from the temptation to celebrate them, instead tells a story that deserves to be celebrated.
Even if not for the anthem that played in the final moments, I stood as the end credits began to roll, to doff my hat to- the movie, the people who made it and the ones it was made on. It is that kind of a movie that gets to you. Think it would to most, given the reception it got in the theatre I watched.