Dangal: A safe sports film that’s hard to dislike

Spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.

I liked Dangal. It has everything you’d expect to see in a sports film. It has everything you’ve previously enjoyed in a sports film. There’s the story of the unhappy coach who lives vicariously through the success of his student. The coach here is yesteryear wrestler, Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan)—‘Phogat’, the word, roared at all times in almost defiant pride—and the students, his daughters, Geeta and Babita. There’s the time-tested story of rural ethics humiliating urban vice. There’s the all-too-familiar narrative of the determined individual’s rise over a mediocre system. Dangal’s slickly made, with energetic music by Pritam Chakraborty. I think I’ll be listening to the title track before henceforth commencing writing duties, only so I feel like my story could potentially win me an Olympic gold. The film has terrific performances, not least from Aamir Khan himself, who reportedly put on and lost about 20 kgs for the role, a fact that has been so publicised that it has no doubt reserved its space in Indian film folklore.

Genre: Drama
Director: Nitesh Tiwari
Cast: Aamir Khan, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sakshi Tanwar
Storyline: A former wrestler trains his daughters to do what he couldn’t

Before proceeding to discuss the film, I’d like to indicate to all concerned that I’m no anti-national, and that I harbour the country no ill will. In fact, it is with significant pride that I share with you that there are often times when I even feel quite fond of it. I state these disclaimers as Mahavir, whose characterisation I have quite some problems with (and I understand that the writers were probably restricted by having to remain faithful to the real story), is promoted in the film as a patriot. His life’s ambition is to win an international gold, but as he tells Geeta, “not for yourself, but for the country.” It is this that he failed to do for the country. It is this he’d like his daughters to do in his stead. I do not exaggerate when I state that I don’t envy his daughters their childhood, which is shown to be at the mercy of this dictator blinded by his dream. Of course, you could make the point that all parents assume, on some level, the role of dictators, but even given that premise, Mahavir is something else. Upon realising that wrestling runs in his daughters’ blood—a conclusion that is no doubt problematic—he proceeds to train them into wrestlers. He makes them run long distances, forces them into a stringent diet, starves them of sleep, deprives them of education, robs them of playtime… I liked Dangal, but Mahavir doesn’t once believe that his methods may be wrong, that his wife—who shares her fear that he may be ruining their lives—may be right. Even the big realisation that his daughters have about his goodness comes not from anything he does or says, but from sagely advice from a girl who seems to say words well beyond her age.

It’s hard to dislike Dangal, mind you. It’s after all the story of two women dominating a sport that is generally forbidden for their kind. It’s easy to think of Dangal as a film about female empowerment, and yet, it’s as much about the father cutting them off their femininity, like when he cuts their hair in a deeply affecting scene. Even given that much of parenthood is about wish fulfillment, Mahavir seems to be going all out. While I liked Dangal, this story about a father and his two daughters has surprisingly little about their lives, about what they desire for themselves, about if they are ever plagued by doubts, about their insecurities, about their trauma. In another movie, say a Taare Zameen Par, the training scenes would likely be shown to be the handiwork of a despot. In Dangal though, you’re almost encouraged to laugh at it all, as ‘Haanikaarak Bapu’ plays in the background.

While I liked Dangal, I was surprised that a 170-minute long film couldn’t devote time to the dissection of these women’s personalities. After Geeta leaves to the National Sports Academy in Patiala, there’s a scene that shows her flashing an impish smile as her female friend gawks at an attractive sportsman who runs past them. She’s even shown to be into her looks a lot. She spends more time in front of the mirror, she grows her hair out, she polishes her nails. But you’re never told if she stared wistfully at men too. Does she wish she went out on dates? Does the way she was raised hinder her social skills? Does she have to cut her hair to be good at her sport?

The best part of Dangal for me was that brief period somewhere in the middle about the problems in the relationship between Geeta and Mahavir. A hush fell on the theatre during that phase, as they proceed to wrestle each other, both literally and metaphorically. Mahavir faces up to every father’s worst nightmare—that their daughter doesn’t think of them as the best man they have ever known. It all builds up to the best scene of the film: when Geeta’s tears shred Mahavir’s silence to pieces over a phone call. In a film whose screen time is much expended on showing intricate details of wrestling bouts, it is this emotional skirmish I enjoyed the most.

I liked Dangal, but I wish the pulsating wrestling contests were more… inventive. During a critical moment, a simple line uttered in a flashback is suddenly brought to your attention. I’ve forever wondered if real sportsmen can suspend the immediacy of the contest long enough to draw from memories with loved ones. Even if you could, I wish the moment in Dangal were built up to feel more organic. There’s again another beautifully shot slow-mo move that Geeta unleashes on her unsuspecting opponent, but it seems a tad too cinematic.

There’s also Babita, and how her character rings a bit underdeveloped. I’d have loved to find out more about Babita. What must it be to constantly try to reach up to the success of your elder sister? What must it be to know that your every achievement is old to your father? At one point, I smacked my lips at the anticipation of a potential sister rivalry—something akin to Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior—but the possibilities get quickly vitiated. Dangal’s a safe, unsurprising sports movie. I liked it. It has everything you’d expect to see in a sports film. It has everything you’ve previously enjoyed in a sports film. But I wish it had had more.

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