By Lily Xiao and Victoria Christie for the Dirty Picture Project. For more details on this project, write to Aarti at firstname.lastname@example.org
Upon its release, the immensely popular Sultan was screening at our local PVR no less than ten times a day. With Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma at the helm, Sultan is a must see for many Indians this summer. Sultan follows the journey of the titular Sultan (Salman Khan) as he slow motion wrestles his way to glory no less than five times within three hours. After marrying fellow wrestler Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), Aarfa mourns the death of their newborn son while Sultan is in London, winning Olympic gold. To add to their misery, their son died from severe anaemia, and Sultan’s rare blood type was capable of saving him, had he not been away being a cocky, macho scumbag. The movie opens on this devastated version of Sultan, who has separated from Aarfa, and given up wrestling to fundraise for a blood bank in Haryana. Luckily for our hero, Sultan is asked to step back into the ring as the underdog in the fledgling Pro Take Down league, which pits boxers, wrestlers and other fighting styles against each other. After enduring his second Rocky-style training montage, life-threatening injuries, and crippling self-doubt, Sultan overcomes his demons to win the tournament and Aarfa’s heart once again.
While the plot was overwrought and, at times, ridiculous, these two Bollywood virgins had a fantastic time, and despite not understanding most of the dialogue, we were able to follow the narrative. However, as feminists, we took issue with the movie’s representation of Aarfa as merely an obstruction and accessory to Sultan’s path to glory.
Aarfa deserves better
Sultan features a single female character, and although she is the lead, Aarfa is framed only in terms of her male counterpart, Sultan. For example, when Aarfa falls pregnant before the Olympics, dashing her childhood dreams of winning a gold medal, her narrative quickly becomes one of a woman sacrificing her dreams for Sultan, while he is busy becoming a national hero. The movie focuses on Sultan’s journey to Olympic glory, while cutting back to Aarfa watching him win on TV, and little attention is given to Aarfa’s sacrifices and her emotional journey as a woman. Additionally, we were disappointed at the movie’s failure to acknowledge Aarfa as a wrestler in her own right. Although she is shown to be a national, and later world champion, Sultan fails to afford her the same heroic treatment as it does Sultan, with crowds chanting his name. This is reflective of how women are treated in sport worldwide, not just in India, who are paid less and treated as pale imitators of their male counterparts. Lastly, the movie doesn’t even put itself in a position to pass the Bechdel test, by failing to provide another female character for Aarfa to talk to about anything besides a man. These criticisms should not take away from Sharma’s performance, as she injects heart and sass into the one-dimensional character she is given, and utterly shines in comparison to Khan’s overdramatic and brutish performance.
We Salman Khan’t buy this movie’s romance
Although we are Bollywood virgins, we had heard of Salman Khan and his scandalous reputation as a womaniser, so we may have gone into Sultan a little wary of his hip-shaking ways. However, our bias doesn’t make Sultan’s pursuit of Aarfa anything less than harassment. Despite her repeated protestations and outright disgust towards Sultan’s advances, he pursues her aggressively, following her around, telling his friends she was his girlfriend, and stalking her to her father’s training centre. While we immensely enjoyed the boys vs. girls Bollywood song and dance number, it trivialised Sultan’s harassment and romanticised it as part of the inevitable love story between the two leads. It is disturbing how familiar this trope of the woman inevitably giving into the man’s advances is, even as Western viewers we could recognise that Aarfa’s initial rejection was going to lead to her eventually falling for him.
Another problem we have with Sultan’s romance is the fantasy Sultan has of Aarfa. When he first meets Aarfa she literally crashes into his life on her motorbike, and he is smitten because she doesn’t fit his expectations of a woman; she’s different. In a pivotal moment in the film, Sultan sees Aarfa smiling at him when he’s down-and-out in a fight. Her kind smile and encouraging eyes inspire him to get up and win the fight. However, she is shown to be merely a hallucination, a fantasy. She’s his manic pixie dream girl; she’s sporty, doesn’t care about her appearance (but miraculously always looks perfect), and inspires him to be better than who he thought he could be. Unfortunately, we’re not given enough time with Aarfa to know her outside this fantasy.
We went into Sultan knowing that kissing was not common in Bollywood films, and yet were still shocked (and frankly, a little disappointed) that the two lovers were only ever able to touch foreheads suggestively. However, Sultan wins points in our book for sexualising Khan’s body far more than it does Sharma’s. We lost track of the number of slow motion fight scenes or scenes with Sultan looking at himself in a mirror, while the camera poured over Khan’s topless body. Comparatively, Aarfa’s wrestling scenes were shot as a tribute to her athletic prowess, rather than as a male fantasy. Unfortunately, just as there was little sexualisation of Aarfa, there was no exploration of Aarfa’s own sexuality. We recognise that this may be a symptom of Sultan being a Bollywood film made for wide release in India, but we are all for a greater recognition of female sexuality in Bollywood films, and films worldwide.
Overall, we’re glad we popped our Bollywood cherries, and Sultan was an enjoyable movie going experience with a rowdy Tuesday night crowd. However, from a feminist perspective, Sultan left a lot to be desired.
 Lily Xiao and Victoria Christie are students at the University of Melbourne. Lily interned with CCG this summer.