Movie Review: “Dangal” Puts Misogyny on the Mat
By Ras H. Siddiqui
Aamir Khan starrer “Dangal” opened just before Christmas across America, but when we tried to catch it at the Century Roseville, we failed twice (it was sold out) and finally succeeded on a third attempt on New Year’s Eve.
Distributed by Disney and produced by Aamir Khan Productions, UTV and Walt Disney Pictures, this Nitesh Tiwari directed film has generated a considerable amount of worldwide interest. This may be due to Aamir Khan himself and his track record of making high quality films in limited quantities (for an actor of his stature), and the unique storyline which put young female Indian wrestlers in the spotlight. Interestingly, if one recalls the recent Olympics in Rio, it was Indian women who won two Olympic medals (P.V. Sindhu the silver for badminton, Sakshi Malik the bronze in wrestling), and Indian men won none.
In this movie Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) and his wife Daya Kaur (Sakshi Tanwar) are a struggling couple like many others in India with a difference. Mahavir was once an Indian National Wrestling Champion with dreams of winning on the international level. That dream has never left his mind but it was one that he had to abandon due to the fiscal challenges that he faced. He got himself an office job instead that paid the bills (there was no monetary encouragement from the national amateur wrestling officialdom), so he decided that he would pass that dream on to his next generation assuming of course that it would be his son, to bring glory to his country. But his plans and reality did not agree because all the children born in his house were daughters (four of them). Thus ended his dream, or so he thought!
One incident changed his perceptions. Two badly beaten boys were brought to him by their parents who complained to Phogat about the severity of the beating by someone in his family. Surprised when told, he initially threatened his nephew Omkar, but it turned out that the two boys had tangled with the two older Phogat girls and regretted it. And it was then that Mahavir got the strange idea that if he did not have sons, maybe his daughters could fulfill his dream of bringing honor to his country.
And it is here that the audience is exposed to numerous comical moments and a window into gender limitations that villages, small towns and cities place on girl children in some parts of India. Girls are meant to cook, clean and get married at a very early age, not engage in sports, and especially not male-dominated wrestling (kushti). But young Geeta ( Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) are destined to be different, because their father is not going to give up. And they are not necessarily pleased about it all till a friend of theirs convinces them otherwise while the townspeople think that Mahavir has lost his mind.
Mahavir’s “craziness” reaches a point where after training his two older girls in a makeshift Akhara he proceeds to bring them to the local Dangals (wrestling competitions) to compete against boys. He is first ridiculed and told to take a hike but someone’s business sense prevails and foresees that bringing the girls in to compete against boys would help ticket sales! And so Geeta and Babita become wrestling celebrities by beating boys in regional competitions and end up becoming India’s amateur wrestling championship contenders. And a few years later, now older, sisters Geeta (Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Babita (Sanya Malhotra) do win at the national level. And it is from here that Geeta takes center stage as she becomes a national champion and travels to the big city to be coached by Pramod Kadam (Girish Kulkarni) for international competition.
Here we see the transformation in Mahavir and are exposed to Aamir Khan’s brilliant acting performance. Throughout the movie he is torn between fatherhood and coaching and the dilemma of being both. And we reach the first crucial point of this film, the wrestling match between the aging Mahavir and Geeta. A father losing his coaching grip on his student, and a daughter who thinks she now knows more about wrestling than her father after being coached by a so-called “professional”. That concludes the first turning point in the film and we would not want to spoil the suspense for any future viewer here and reveal the outcome.
Against all odds Mahavir succeeded in bringing not one but now two daughters to the national level of the wrestling sport India and to the national coaching center. The focus now turns to Geeta and her somewhat dismal performance at the international level. She has had to abandon her father’s lessons and techniques because of her new coach. How can she succeed? Here the film turns to international competition and the move by move, point by point focus of amateur wrestling on the world stage and it does that quite well. Geeta has to make some tough choices and so does Mahavir, who reminds his daughter that second place winners are soon forgotten and that Geeta is fighting for every girl child in India when she competes. This journey to the international level is not easy for a small town girl who now has to compete to world standards. The story (based on the fact that Mahavir Phogat and his daughters are real people) turns out to be gripping.
So why do fans like to watch Aamir Khan movies? Maybe, it is because they make a point, and are carefully chosen to educate? His films like the brilliant anti-colonial stand in Lagaan or the simply amazing logic of PK, were considered a cut above the rest. Here in Dangal, the main issue highlighted is not just how to win at wrestling, but how to wrestle against social norms that support gender discrimination and the perceived “weaknesses” of girls and women in society. This film puts misogyny on the mat and it does it well. (Rating 4 Stars out of 5).