December 23, 2016
Aamir Khan, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Zaira Wasim, Sanya Malhotra, Suhani Bhatnagar, Sakshi Tanwar, Aparshakti Khurana, Girish Kulkarni, Vivan Bhathena
Sweaty bodies gripping each other in places strangers should not touch, violence as a form of entertainment, our baser human instincts getting official and mass encouragement – if you ask me why I cannot stand contact sports, these would top my answer.
Young Geeta and Babita Phogat have far more mundane reasons for hating wrestling: no girl they know does it, so why should they? Dangal is the story of their father’s bulldog-like determination to make them gold medal winners for India, and the girls’ own passage from aversion to passion for the sport.
Nitesh Tiwari’s third film as director is based on the real-life story of Haryana’s Mahavir Singh Phogat, patriarch and coach of one of the country’s most unusual sporting families: his daughters are all wrestling champions, the eldest two – Geeta and Babita – are Commonwealth Games gold medallists, and Geeta is the first Indian woman wrestler to have ever qualified for the Olympics.
This achievement is particularly striking considering that Haryana has one of India’s worst child sex ratios and a horrifying track record in the matter of female foeticide and infanticide.
Dangal is about Mahavir’s single-mindedness which brings him into conflict with his wife, his community, the country’s sporting establishment and ultimately, even Geeta.
The first half of the film is riveting in every way imaginable. Mahavir (played by Aamir Khan) gives up his wrestling dreams to financially support his family. He then decides to turn his yet-to-be-born sons into wrestlers who will bring home golds for India. This dream too is crushed when he and his wife Daya have four daughters instead in succession. One day when Geeta and Babita bash up a couple of local boys for abusing them, Mahavir sees the light. He forgot, he says, that a gold medal is gold whether won by a boy or a girl.
The songs neatly woven into the narrative in these scenes are catchy, their lyrics steeped in hilarious colloquialisms. The acting is singularly flawless all around.
Geeta and Babita as children are played by two brilliant debutants, Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar, who knock it out of the park in every scene (if I may borrow a phrase from another game). And the storytelling matches up.
No effort is made to gloss over Mahavir’s flaws: he is a dictator at home and a terror outside. This is, without question, a traditional set-up where the husband/father’s word matters more than anyone else’s opinions or beliefs. Even the local people are afraid of him, but that does not stop them from gossipping about this man who, they are convinced, will drive his daughters to ruin by forcing them into a field they believe no woman should touch with a barge pole.
But Mahavir soldiers on. The pre-interval portion is quick-paced, amusing and moving in equal parts. To see a son-crazed old villager metamorphose into a vocal advocate of women’s rights is extremely touching. To witness him in the conflicting roles of feminist and patriarch, traditionalist and visionary (note his understanding of celebrity brand endorsements) is insightful and educational. To watch the girls grow from reluctant wrestlers into committed, self-driven sportspersons is hugely engaging and poignant.
(Spoiler alert) The second half is not as assured in its writing. This is when Geeta and Babita – now played by the older and also gifted Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra – become their own persons, and Geeta clashes with Mahavir. The father-daughter conflict is absorbing until Dangal loses its way in the rationalisation of the resolution. Are we being convinced to root for Mahavir instead of Geeta’s new coach because Daddy is always right or because this particular Daddy happens to be a great coach with strategies better suited to Geeta’s game? It should be the latter, but in the conversations between the various players in this saga, the reasoning is fuzzy.
This leaves us with the disturbing possibility that the fuzziness is a deliberately populist move in a nation that by and large still considers it the duty of children to never question their parents.
Equally troublesome is a portion of the climax that appears to be a bow to the loud nationalism prevailing in India right now. The nicely seamless fashion in which the national anthem is played – with relevance – at that point in the narrative is diluted by a moment of needless, cringe-worthy sloganeering that seems contrived to cash in on current public sentiment. (Spoiler alert ends)
These choices are what holds Dangal back from the greatness it could have achieved. That said it remains a film with numerous attractions, foremost among them being the superstar at the centre of the action. Aamir Khan as Mahavir Singh Phogat throws himself into the role with a conviction and commitment that mirror the real-life Mahavir’s own maniacal pursuit of perfection for his daughters. The changes Khan has made to his body for this part are impressive to the point of being intimidating, but what really wins the day is the way every cell of his being seems infused with the character. Hats off to him for being as obsessive about excellence as the man he has brought to life on screen in this film.
It is a measure of his confidence and his instinct for good cinema that although he is one of Dangal’s producers, he does not allow Mahavir to overshadow his daughters or his own superstardom to overshadow the newcomers in the film. The four young women who play Geeta and Babita are smashingly good. Casting director Mukesh Chhabra has really outdone himself in this film. The talented satellite cast is the icing on the cake – Sakshi Tanwar is credible in the small role of their mother, and a scintillating Aparshakti Khurana (who we recently saw in Saat Uchakkey) plays their sweet, supportive cousin.
A large part of the second half of Dangal is taken up by Geeta’s wrestling matches. The director has wisely chosen to show us these bouts in their entirety rather than just edited clips. The film then becomes a medley of matches that are so well shot, so well played by Fatima Sana Shaikh and the other performers, and so well choreographed that they take nothing away from Dangal’s cinematic value.
The ultimate test for this film is whether it can get a viewer (like me) who dislikes contact sports to bite her nails with tension through Geeta Phogat’s multiple encounters on the mat. I do not know about others, but I can tell you I needed a nail file after watching Dangal. A personal salaam to Nitesh Tiwari for that.
During the Rio Olympics this year, the discourse on sporting achievement in India was dominated by those who were so frustrated by the corruption in the country’s sporting establishment and our poor show in the medals tally, that even non-medallists were held up as icons. No offence intended to those who disagree, but while we do need to laud our players for ever tiny step covered despite the huge odds they face, we must question the defeatist logic in taking out celebratory processions for those who do not win.
Dangal may be confusingly cautious around popular notions on the parental front, but in the matter of sporting achievement it does not mince words: silver is second best, it tells us unequivocally, and there is nothing wrong in aiming for gold. In an India that remains doubtful about the virtues of ambition, in a world that continues to consider ambition a dirty word for women in particular, such clarity is remarkable and inspiring.
Rating (out of five stars): ***
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dangal_(film)