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Lal and Karthi have great on-screen chemistry, adding humanity to the usual Tamil cinema representation of people branded as rowdies.

Karthi in black shirt in Sulthan screenshot
Flix Review Friday, April 02, 2021 - 16:49
Worth a watch

Cinema heroes who play dons aren’t new. They have an army of “rowdies” to do their bidding and to tower over. Sulthan does something different with this template. It’s no mean trick to write a script that humanises a hundred men who in other such films may hardly have had a speaking part. That way, Bakkiyaraj Kannnan’s second film is ambitious. On-and-off slightly too ambitious with all the stories it wants to tell simultaneously.

Sethupathi (Napolean) is the don here, but mercifully exits the screen early in the film. He has a hundred men at his command who live in his house and pretty much take over the parenting of his son, Vikram nicknamed Sulthan from the day he’s born. They’re his family. The adult Sulthan (Karthi) returns home to Chennai from Bombay only intending to stay a week, but a series of events take him and his extended family of “rowdy annans” to a village under siege.

This is where the film sometimes struggles to keep its balance. Sulthan, fearing for their lives, wants his father’s men to walk away from their violent jobs. He keeps making a case for peace over a life of bloodshed. The village has its own problems. A wealthy business man (Nawab Shah) wants to grab all the agricultural land to mine its iron. The people have been browbeaten into not working their farms. Nawab Shah’s henchman (Ramchandra Raju) is tasked with ensuring that no one dares to continue their livelihood.

As villains, Nawab Shah is wooden at best, and the much-anticipated Ramchandra Raju’s Tamil debut, despite his magnificent job in the Kannada film KGF: Chapter One as the ruthless Garuda, is too shallowly written to be the menacing enemy that we’re meant to view him as. Sulthan would have benefited from relying less heavily on Ramchandra Raju’s screen presence and spending more time on building up his character.

Despite this, the film is a roaring entertainer. Much of the credit goes to an impeccably in form Karthi. He brings together the right amount of comedy, emotional and mass moments. Mansoor Bhai (Lal), Sethupathi’s second-in-command and Sulthan have an endearing relationship. Lal and Karthi have great on-screen chemistry, adding humanity to the usual Tamil cinema representation of people branded as rowdies. This family of a hundred are distinguishable. Funny. Human.

Watch: Trailer of 'Sulthan'

The over-the-top stunts play out well, backed by a solid soundtrack. This is why Sulthan’s obsession with peaceful solutions gets a bit confusing. Anyway, ultimately the film must have cinematic action sequences—not necessarily a complaint, since the grand face-off between a land grabbing mining company and farmers defending their livelihoods was particularly satisfying. It’s just mystifying what the moral of the story regarding violent measures really is, since Sulthan spends so much time soliloquising about putting an end to his family’s trade in death and bloodshed.

Speaking of what Sulthan is actually about, it’s at times hard to keep track of everything the director wants to say. He clearly wanted to dedicate the film’s soul to farmers (well, the ones who own land mainly). Many of the scenes speak directly to well-to-do people in big cities who care nothing for the ongoing agricultural crisis nor have a clue about the struggles farmers constantly face. When the script also tries to probe the moral complexity of taking up arms, it occasionally has trouble holding all these elements (and our comprehension) in place.

The necessary romance is one more element to keep up with, but at least the heroine has a purpose of her own that interestingly, Karthi takes up instead of the other way around. Her boldness and commitment to the cause of farming families like hers is celebrated, though Rashmika Mandanna fails to convince as a villager from the Salem district.

I do have to say that the feudal overtones in the relationship between Karthi and the men he calls his brothers is hard to ignore. The format of mass-hero films is such that directors, unless they’re conscious about social hierarchies, will keep sacrificing individual agency for saviour-figures. To be completely fair, Sulthan is self-aware enough to question his father about these dynamics at a particular point in the film.

Apart from intermittent lags, Sulthan is a surprisingly fun film. Bakkiyaraj Kannnan’s directorial debut Remo being the torturous viewing experience it was, I expected far less from his second attempt. I’d rate this a 3.5—most definitely worth a watch.

Also read: 'Irul' review: With too many unanswered questions, Fahadh thriller is a let-down

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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