“The Two Popes” - Fernando Meirelles (2019)

The Two Popes (2019) is a biographical drama about the two most recent Popes of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.  The story mostly consists of fabricated conversations that could have taken place between these two figures, based on what is known about them, during 2005-2013, when Benedict XVI served as head of the Church and the man later to become Pope Francis was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Now you might think that a film that is mostly a presentation of “talking heads” – and one confined in this case to just two very old men, at that – would be boring to watch.  But The Two Popes turns out to be a fascinating and enlightening viewing experience [1,2,3,4], and one that held my interest all the way along .

Directed by Fernando Meirelles (known for City of God (2002) and The Constant Gardener (2005)), the film was written by Anthony McCarten (his script is based on his 2017 play The Pope); and it features nuanced acting performances on the part of its two leads, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.  The latter three figures have each been nominated, in connection with this film, for Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA Film awards in their respective categories – Best Adapted Screenplay (Anthony McCarten), Best Actor (Jonathan Pryce), and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins). 

Although the film is generally carefully made and edited, there is one detriment to the production that reduces one’s viewing enjoyment – the cinematography of César Charlone.  Throughout the film there are noticeably shaky hand-held camera shots of closeups during conversations, which should be held static.  This is a major problem, because much of the film consists of conversational closeups, where the viewer must focus on subtle facial expressions expressing emotional nuances of the speaker and attentive listener.  In addition on many of these shots, the camera framing is poor and distracting.  And in other circumstances, outside of the conversations, there are often unmotivated, wildly swerving camera pans that are also distracting to the viewer.  This sloppy camera work is surprising to me, because César Charlone was also the cinematographer for Meirelles’s City of God and The Constant Gardener, two excellent  films that I don’t recall having had poor cinematography.

Nevertheless, the film has its virtues, and I would say that the truly standout positive element in the film is McCarten’s script.  It manages to artfully articulate and convey, through the extended dialogues between the two main characters, two very different faces and potential directions of the Catholic Church.  Both of these faces have their rationales and significant backing worldwide:
  • Pope Benedict XVI seeks to maintain the Church as a bastion of traditional values.  This is based on the idea that the Church has staunchly upheld these unchanging values throughout the many centuries of turbulent human history and thereby has always served as a constant beacon of hope for the faithful all over the world.
  • Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio seeks to fashion a more humane and forgiving Church that more sensitively reaches out with compassion to all the people who may be suffering in the world.  This would mean, for example, relaxing some of the rigid Church restrictions now in force concerning clerical celibacy, homosexuality, and abortion.  Instead of an unchanging Church, Bergoglio wants one that adapts to the world’s changing circumstances so that it can continue to demonstrate how God can always be an active part of today’s world.
So Benedict is the conservative, and Bergoglio is the progressive [5]. The cleverness of the script lies in situating these complex notions in a natural conversational format that not only outlines the thematic differences, but also reveals the basic warmth and humanity of the two characters.  (Since the two of them could both speak Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Church Latin, it was fortunate for me that their language medium of exchange in this film was English.)

Anyway, the story of The Two Popes begins in 2005 with the death of Pope John Paul II, which meant that the more than one hundred Cardinals around the world had to come to the Vatican in Rome in order to participate in a Papal conclave to elect a new Pope.  Among these Cardinals are the conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (played by Anthony Hopkins) and the progressive Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce).  After a couple of indecisive ballots, Ratzinger is elected and becomes new Pope Benedict XVI.  Bergoglio finished second in the voting and returns to Argentina.

Then the time shifts forward to 2012.  Cardinal Bergoglio is seeking retirement, but he now finds himself summoned for unknown reasons to the Vatican by Pope Benedict.  The Papacy, the viewer is reminded, has been afflicted in recent years by several scandals, including the Vatican Leaks Scandal [6] and the coverup of reported pedophilia among the clergy.  So we may wonder if Bergoglio’s call to Rome is associated with some of those problems.  Anyway, when he arrives in Rome, Bergoglio is taken to the Pope’s summer residence, where he begins his private conversations with the Pope.

Bergoglio wants to get Pope Benedict’s authorization of his retirement, but Benedict keeps changing the subject and wants only to talk about their theological differences.  And this is where the film gets into its interesting depths.  Benedict asserts his conservative adherence to tradition, while Bergoglio says the Church has not always been static, and he advocates a more accommodating approach.  He reminds Benedict that clerical celibacy was not imposed by the Church before the 12th century, and there was even no mention of angels before the 5th century. 

Finally, after discussing various issues, like Church tolerance of homosexuality and whether Bergoglio has been right in his practice to give holy sacraments to those outside of communion, Benedict emphatically asserts in frustration that “God does not change!”  But Bergoglio softly responds with the warm counter-assertion that God is always moving – and He is always moving towards us.

As the two continue their discussions, they become more affably cordial towards each other, and they talk about pop music and favorite television shows.  Benedict even sits down at the piano and plays some light music for Bergoglio.  And Bergoglio recounts to Benedict about his early days before entering the Church when he had a secular job and was engaged to be married to a girl he loved..  But then one day he heard the “Call” and joined the Jesuits.  For his part, Benedict wonders aloud worriedly that he fears he no longer can hear God’s call within himself.

Then they are taken to the Vatican, and they meet up again alone in the Sistine Chapel.  There Benedict finally reveals to Bergoglio why he summoned him to the Vatican.  He intends to resign from the Papacy, something that hasn’t been done for seven centuries.  And far from accepting Bergoglio’s resignation, he wants him to become the new Pope.

But Bergoglio doesn’t want to accept this promotion, because he feels he has committed grave sins in the past.  He confesses that during the Argentinian Dirty War (1976-83) [7], he made too many concessions to the despotic Argentinian dictators of this time in order to protect the Church.  He regrets not having stood up more for those who were suffering from torture and murder at the hands of the cruel junta regime that was engaged in state terrorism (as many as 30,000 innocent citizens were “disappeared” during this period [7]).  As a result of his relative inaction during that period, Bergoglio was later removed from being head of the Argentinians Jesuits and ordered to serve as an ordinary priest for ten years (1983-93).  So he now feels he is unworthy of being Pope. 

However, Benedict has his own humble confessions to offer in return, and he still insists that Bergoglio is the right man for the Papacy.  In the end the two men, both humbly seeking forgiveness, become closer than ever, and they formally absolve each other in turn of their past sins.  Before he returns to Argentina, Bergoglio even shows Benedict how to do the tango.

We then move forward to 2013, and Bergoglio is shown being formally elected as Pope Francis, who is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the southern hemisphere, and the first from outside Europe since the eighth-century .  The finals shots show the two confirmed friends, Benedict and Francis, amicably sitting together on a couch in front of a TV and watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Final between their respective favorite teams, Germany and Argentina.

All films have a narrative structure, and it is this narrative, or narratives, that command our interest.  In The Two Popes there are three intertwined narrative threads – those of Pope Benedict, Cardinal Bergoglio, and the Catholic Church, itself.  The two personages, Benedict and Bergoglio, are both earnest, well-intentioned, and selfless, but my own sympathies are more naturally aligned with the more humane and warm-hearted Bergoglio.  What makes the film compelling is the way it shows how narrative progression on the institutional (Catholic Church) scale can be so crucially affected by subtle exchanges on the human scale (even if the historical authenticity of those portrayed human-scale exchanges are unverified).  These human-scale exchanges, brilliantly portrayed by the two Welshmen, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, are what make The Two Popes a fascinating work.

  1. Philip Kemp, “The Two Popes review: opposites attract in this brilliantly acted tale of papal succession”, Sight & Sound, (4 December 2019).   
  2. Odie Henderson, “The Two Popes”, RogerEbert.com, (27 November 2019).   
  3. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “The Two Popes”, Spirituality & Practice, (n.d.).   
  4. Peter Debruge, “Telluride Film Review: ‘The Two Popes’”, Variety, (2 September 2019).  
  5. Vinson Cunningham, “Will Pope Francis Cause a Schism in the Catholic Church?”, The New Yorker, (9 April 2018).      
  6. “Vatican leaks scandal”, Wikipedia, (12 January 2020).   
  7. “Dirty War”, Wikipedia, (24 January 2020).   

“Gone with the Wind” - Victor Fleming (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939) is certainly one of the greatest movies ever made, and it has always enjoyed immense popularity with the viewing public [1,2,3,4].  In particular, the commanding performances of its two lead actors, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, linger long in the memories of all those who see the film.  Within the United States and Canada, Gone with the Wind is still ranked first on the list of all films in terms of both total theater admissions and gross earnings [5].  The film was based on Margaret Mitchell’s runaway best-selling novel Gone with the Wind (1936), which was the leading American fiction book seller in both 1936 and 1937.  And it didn’t take Hollywood long to see the 1000-page book’s potential.  Youthful film producer David O. Selznick paid a high price for the film rights to the novel in July 1936, just one month after the novel’s publication. 

Given Margaret Mitchell’s epic depiction of the American Old South that spreads over a 12-year period covering life before, during, and after the American Civil War (1861-1865), one might wonder what parts of her novel were left out of the film.  I have read the novel (which I recommend to you), and the answer to that question is: not much [3,6].  Almost everything in Mitchell’s romantic saga is there, and they all fit together into a harmonious and relentlessly compelling whole.  And despite the film’s long running time lasting more than 3hr 40 min, the film moves fast all the way along.

The filming of the novel took some time to complete, with many revisions to Sydney Howard’s original screenplay and several directorial changes slowing things down.  Nevertheless, the finished product was magnificent, and it represents the ultimate expression of Hollywood-style filmmaking.  The film won a record ten Oscars and was nominated for three others, despite there having been strong competition from other films made that year (e.g. The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Wuthering Heights).

Upon its release, Gone with the Wind (GWTW) was quickly regarded as the greatest film ever made.  Nevertheless, there later arose some critical naysaying about GWTW in the 1960s, during the increasing fascination with the French New Wave and the rise of a creative new breed of filmmakers.  These critics embraced the auteur theory of filmmaking, which advanced the notion that a great work of art had to be the creation of a single artistic “genius” who would see to it that all aspects of the production conformed to his or her artistic vision [7].  According to this view, “too many cooks spoil the broth”.  In connection with filmmaking, the film director was the candidate auteur, and he or she had to have full control over all aspects of the production.  Certainly this was not the case with Gone with the Wind, since there were a number of individuals who served as the film’s director at various points of the production. Even though Victor Fleming [8] was finally listed as the film’s sole director and won the Oscar for Best Film Director, the film’s direction was undertaken by several different people (the initial director was, in fact, George Cukor).  According to Tim Dirks [3]:
“.. . . almost half of the film was directed by Victor Fleming (45%) - who received screen credit, four other directors contributed various parts of the film: Sam Wood (15%), William Cameron Menzies (15%), 'woman's director' George Cukor (5%) - the first director, B. Reeves ("Breezy") Eason (2%), and the remaining from various second unit directors (18%).” 
So GWTW doesn’t fit into the auterist theory of great film creativity.  Thus auteur theory proponent Andrew Sarris remarked about the film [9]:
“That it [GWTW] fails as personal art is due to the incessant interference with a project that was always too big to be controlled by a single directorial style.”
However, I would argue that despite the impressive cavalcade of auteurist directors that have appeared over time, great works of art can also be produced by a collaborative team.  And Gone with the Wind is a supreme example of that.

The story of Gone with the Wind has two distinct halves.  Over the first half things are mostly happening to Scarlett O’Hara, while in the second half Scarlett is more of an active agent and effecting her own will on the turbulent world around her.  The film begins with a textual statement signaling to the viewer the narrative perspective of the tale
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”
Then we see Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh), a pretty 16-year-old girl who lives at the wealthy Tara plantation in the state of Georgia, attending a barbecue at the nearby Twelve Oaks plantation. There she is crushed to learn that the man she desperately loves, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), intends to marry his own cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).  Out of sheer spite, the jealous Scarlett immediately and petulantly accepts the wedding proposal of Melanie’s fawning brother, William Hamilton.  Scarlett also briefly meets a handsome and cocky guest from Charleston at the barbecue, businessman Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who expresses some immediate attraction for Scarlett.  

Just then, the launching of the American Civil War is announced, and all the men at the barbecue, except Rhett Butler, confidently rush off to join the Southern Confederate army in hopes of becoming war heroes.  In almost no time at all, Scarlett learns that her off–at-the-front husband William has died and that she is now a widow.  The rest of this half of the film traces the declining fortunes of the Confederate army, as the Northern army begins a destructive invasion of the Confederate states.  All the while, Scarlett still pines for Ashley.  She even befriends Ashley’s wife Melanie and goes to live with her in the city of Atlanta in the hopes of seeing him when he comes home from the war front.  Rhett can only look on in bemused frustration.

Finally, with the Northern army about to invade Atlanta, Scarlett decides to flee with Melanie, now-bedridden from recent childbirth, to Tara.  And with everyone else evacuating, too, Rhett rescues her on the chaotic streets and helps her get to Tara.  When she does get there, she discovers that her mother is dead, her father has lost his mind, and the Tara plantation has been pillaged.  All the while up to this point, the beautiful Scarlett has been shown to be vain and selfish, but she has also been a victim of harrowing circumstances.  At the end of this first half, though, Scarlett remains defiant and vows to never go hungry again.

The second half of the film shows a disordered post-war South that has been invaded by carpetbaggers.  Scarlett has been toughened by her experiences, and she now struggles to make Tara profitable as a farm.  In order to pay off exorbitant taxes on the farm, she steals her sister Suellen’s beau, Frank Kennedy, who is the owner of a successful store, and she marries him for his money. 

A bit later when Scarlett is alone driving a horse-driven wagon in the forest, she is attacked by outlaws.  She is luckily saved when one of her former slaves happens to see what is going on and just manages to come to her rescue.  When Frank and Rhett learn about what almost happened to Scarlett, they notify the vigilante group to which they belong and carry out an attack on the shanty town that is believed to believed to be the home of Scarlett’s attackers.  (In the novel this vigilante group is the Ku Klux Klan, but no reference is made to the Klan in the film.)

After the shanty town raid is completed, it is revealed that Frank was killed in the attack; and so Scarlett learns that she is widow again.  Not long afterwards, Scarlett accepts Rhett’s marriage proposal, but again she is doing it for money – Rhett is wealthy. 

With Scarlett and Rhett finally together, we might expect that romantic fulfillment will now come to them at last, but such does not happen.  Scarlett is still vain and selfish, and she is still mooning over her dream love with Ashley Wilkes.  After she gives birth to a daughter, Bonnie Blue, she becomes concerned about the effects of pregnancy on her trim figure, and so she bans Rhett from further presence in the conjugal bed.  Rhett, of course, is highly troubled by this demand, but he submits to it.  Later, however, a disgruntled and inebriated Rhett carries Scarlet upstairs to the bedroom and forcibly imposes his conjugal rights on her.  Judging by her chirpy expression when she wakes up the next morning, it seems like Scarlett was delighted with her nighttime engagement with Rhett.  But when the two of them talk again in the morning, they are back again “operating at cross-purposes” (a euphemistic phrase Rhett would later use to refer  to their relationship).

Frustrated and still in love with Scarlett, Rhett now devotes himself to smothering his daughter Bonnie Blue with affection.  But tragic events lie in store for them all, and fulfillment remains  always out of reach.  When Scarlett finally comes to the realization that she really does love Rhett and passionately tells him so, it is too late.  After twelve years, he has finally given up on her, and he tells her  he is going back to Charrleston, giving her his memorable despairing remark as he departs.

Seeing Gone with the Wind again today, I am astonished at how magnificent the film continues to be.  With the film’s epic sweep, there are a number of narrative planes, some personal and some social, that collectively contribute to the film’s greatness:
  • Romance 
    Certainly the long, passionate, and frustrating relationship between the two lead characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, is dramatic and unforgettable.  That is the continually winding thread that holds the viewer’s attention throughout.
  • Madness of War 
    The arrogance, stupidity, and inevitable destructiveness of war is well documented in this story.  At the outset of the film, just prior to the American Civil War, all the Southern gentry are confident that they will win the upcoming war in a few weeks.  But later the horror and devastation of the war’s consequences are shown in graphic detail.
  • Southern Gothic fiction 
    Margaret Mitchell’s novel was an example of Southern Gothic literature, a popular genre in America that dramatizes the “long hot summer” of Southern decadence and guilt [10].  This film is a further example of that.
  • Women’s Initiative and Never-Give-Up Spirit 
    Scarlett O’Hara’s relentless determination to do whatever it takes to survive is an inspirational theme for women in this story.  While men around her are floundering, she keeps finding new ways to keep going.  This reflected a growing aspect of American society in the 1930s (and continuing to this day), when women were becoming more active participants in society.
  • Disruptive/Commercializing vs. Tradition-based/Agrarian Societies 
    On the social level, the film graphically depicts the radical transformation of Southern society after the war, when disruptive and exploitative carpetbaggers descended on the South to take advantage of the war-torn society.  This rising emphasis on opening up everything to open competition, though it led to more freedom for former slaves, led to a deterioration in traditional Southern social values.
  • Personal Satisfaction and Survival vs. Moral Duty and Compassion 
    Both Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara are selfish utilitarians and only concerned with their own welfare throughout much of this story.  On the other hand, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is the personification of moral duty and compassion in this story, and although early on Scarlett dismisses her as a "pale-faced, mealy-mouthed ninny”, Melanie becomes a role model, and both Rhett and Scarlet begin to develop compassionate concerns for others towards the end of the film.  And in fact the viewer may wonder at the end of this film whether this change in personal perspective on the part of Scarlett and Rhett may ultimately lead to a satisfactory outcome for them in the future.
The production values for the film are uniformly outstanding, as the many Oscars awarded to the film attest (notably, for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction).  But I would particularly like to highlight the musical score by Max Steiner, which drew on some of the classic songs by Stephen Foster and which featured several haunting and memorable musical themes, notably “Tara’s Theme”, that were repeated throughout the film.

But what lingers long in my mind the most is the depiction of love and the never-ebbing longing for its fulfillment.  Scarlett is beautiful and desperate for love, but she doesn’t know how to engage with the one person who can bring the love she seeks to fruition.  As Rhett memorably tells her on one occasion in the story:
“You need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.”
  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Gone with the Wind (1939): Victor Fleming's Oscar-winning epic war drama starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (19 January 2012).  
  2. Roger Ebert”, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Great Movie, Rogerebert.com, (21 June 1998). 
  3. Tim Dirks, “Gone With The Wind (1939)”, Filmsite, (n.d.).    
  4. Dennis Schwartz, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (n.d.).   
  5. “Top Lifetime Adjusted Grosses”, Box Office Mojo by IMDb pro, IMDb, (2020).   
  6. “Magill’s American Film Guide. V 2.”, Frank N. Magill (ed.), Salem Press, Englewood Cliffs NJ (1983), text quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Gone with the Wind”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XI.5), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (27 September 2005).   
  7. “Auteur”, Wikipedia, (7 December 2019).   
  8. “VICTOR FLEMING from World Film Directors. V. I. Ed.John Wakeman,    H.W.Wilson Co. NY 1987", text quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Gone with the Wind”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XI.5), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (27 September 2005).  
  9. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968), p. 259.
  10. Leslie Fiedler, “The Return of the Vanishing American”, Stein & Day NY (1969), text quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Gone with the Wind”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XI.5), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (27 September 2005).  

Victor Fleming

Films of Victor Fleming:

“Dangal” - Nitesh Tiwari (2016)

Dangal (meaning: “Wrestling Competition”; 2016) is an immensely popular sports drama that has set box-office records both in India and abroad [1,2].  Directed by Nitesh Tiwari and featuring Indian superstar Aamir Khan in the lead role, the film was also produced by Aamir Khan, along with Kiran Rao and Siddharth Roy Kapur.  The script for the film, which was developed by Tiwari, Piyush Gupta, Shreyas Jain, and Nikhil Meharotra, is loosely based on the true story of how an ordinary man from north India (Haryana) managed to train his two daughters to become world-class wrestlers in India’s traditionally male-dominated society. 

Thanks perhaps to several aspects of the film which I will discuss below, Dangal has been an enormous success and has earned more than US$ 300 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing Indian film of all time [3].  This commercial success has come in spite of efforts by the BJP and other nationalist elements of the right-wing establishment to boycott the film because of their protests against Aamir Khan’s humanism [4].  As I mentioned as part of my review of Khan’s Taare Zameen Par [5]:
“. . . Khan, himself, has over the course of his career not only gained much fame for his roles in high-grossing films, such as 3 Idiots (2009) and Dangal (2016), but, in addition, has also drawn considerable attention for his activities outside the cinema in connection with his support of humanitarian causes and as a social critic.  As a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman (Kiran Rao), Aamir Khan has sought to bridge social divides in India and has expressed in this connection some criticism of sectarian activities on the part of Norendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat.  This has led to personal attacks from Hindu nationalists, who have organized boycotts of Khan’s films.  Nevertheless, Khan remains one of the most popular figures in Indian cinema.”
The story of Dangal concerns a man, Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Aamir Khan), who was a champion amateur pehlwani wrestler as a young man.  However, his father coerced him into giving up wrestling and instead concentrate on getting a normal job and raising a family.  This was something that Mahavir agreed to do, but he always regretted sacrificing his sports career and the honors that he could have attained.

Note that one of the interesting production details of Dangal that fascinates many viewers concerns the weight changes that Aamir Khan underwent during the shooting of this film.  Since he plays a role of an athletic person, Mahavir Singh Phogat, who is seen in the film at various ages over some twenty-five years or so, Khan chose to depict Mahavir’s gradually aging physiognomy by putting on his own real body weight.  This meant that Khan had to gain some 30 kg and weigh a total of 98 kg in order to perform the role of the more aged Mahavir, who is shown for the bulk of the screen-time.  This is a lot for someone as short as Khan, who is only 168 cm (5 feet, 6 inches) tall.  So viewers see a number of different versions of Aamir Khan over the course of this film.

Anyway, as the story moves forward, Mahavir gets a routine job, gets married, and hopes to raise a son that can be a wrestling champion.  When his wife gets pregnant, he prays for a boy, but the newborn turns out to be a girl.  Given India’s patriarchal society, Mahavir’s neighbors all assume that he wants a son simply because that’s the traditionally preferred gender in India.  So they offer him all sorts of superstitious prescriptions that are supposed to guarantee the delivery of a boy.  But none of these formulae work, and three more daughters are born but no sons.  Finally Mahavir gives up on his quest for a son and abandons his dream of raising a wrestling champion.

But years later, when Mahavir learns that his two older daughters, Geeta (played at this age by Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar), have beaten up two boys who had taunted them, he revives his long-held dreams of family glory.  Now, instead of a son, he will raise his two girls to be female wrestling champions.

Mahavir establishes a harsh training regimen for the girls, forcing them to get up every day at five in the morning and engage in heavy-duty calisthenics, long-distance running, and strength-building exercises.  He also sets up a makeshift wrestling pit outside his home and relentlessly teaches them wrestling moves that they will need in future competitions.  In order to make his daughters more efficient and less likely to be distracted by girly concerns, he forces Geeta and Babita to have their hair cut very short into crewcut form and to wear (uncharacteristically for Indian girls, especially for the small town in which they reside) boys’ shorts and shirts.

The first half of the film shows the gruelling training and development of the two girls, and it eventually results in Geeta winning some junior championships at the state and national levels.  But Mahavir is relentlessly ambitious, and he wants her to win an international championship medal.  In order to represent India in such a competition, though, Geeta (now somewhat older and played by Fatima Sana Shaikh) must attend the National Sports Academy in Patiala for training.  The immediate goal is to win a medal in the upcoming Commonwealth Games.

This sets up the narrative conflict of the second half of the film, because now Geeta is to leave her home and be trained by a national coach, Pramod Kadam (Girish Kulkarni).  Kadam’s wrestling philosophy and teaching are completely different from Mahavir’s, and the two men take an instant dislike for each other.  Both men are seeking glory for themselves, and their instrument, over whom they jealously compete, is poor Geeta. 

Mahavir tries to pass his own instructions to Geeta at the academy by various means, and the jealous Kadam takes steps to block his interference.  Finally, we get to the Commonwealth games, themselves, and a number of wrestling matches are shown in remarkably graphic and realistic detail. 

With Mahavir shouting his own competing instructions to Geeta from his audience seat, she keeps winning and makes it to the championship match for the gold medal.  But Kadam still sees Mahavir’s instructions to Geeta as harmful interference, and he manages to have Mahavir misled into getting locked into a closet below the arena for the final match.  Now on her own and seemingly outmatched by her powerful opponent, Geeta nevertheless manages to remember her absent father’s instructions just at the critical moment.  It all makes for a very dramatic ending, and she becomes the first Indian female wrestler ever to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games [6].

There are some undeniable virtues of Dangal, notably the acting and the vivid staging and filming of the wrestling activities.  In particular the sensitive acting of Fatima Sana Shaikh is exceptional.  Aamir Khan’s performance is good, too, but I think there was a little too much emphasis placed on his role as Mahavir – it might have been a bit better to ration some of his relentless scowling and grimacing here.  

However, the great popularity of Dangal is probably primarily due to three narrative factors [1]:
  • An Underdog Sports Drama
  • Nationalistic Pride
  • A Feminist Perspective
So let’s look at these a little.

An Underdog Sports Drama 
Dangal does dramatically show an underdog from a modest background overcoming all obstacles and winning a championship.  However, the drama of wrestling matches is difficult to show visually, because much of the narrative ebb-and-flow takes place in the minds of the competitors, in connection with what moves to attempt at a given moment.  Dangal makes a good attempt here, but the narrative possibilities are limited.

Nationalistic Pride
Indians understandably take pride in depictions showing their own people winning championships at the international level.  But I didn’t get the feeling that any of the participants in the film were motivated by patriotic fervour.  Mahavir and Kadam seemed driven by selfish pride and their own egotistical obsessions with self-esteem.  And Geeta, the most selfless person in the story, seemed more to be trying to live up to her father’s faith in her.

In fact in these kinds of one-man competitions like wrestling, it is difficult to evoke a notion supporting national community.  A better presentation that probably did evoke communal pride was the film Lagaan (2001), where teamwork incorporating contributors from a spectrum of social sectors was a factor.  Indeed it is good to remember that India has made profound contributions to the world, not the least of which has been the sustained demonstration of a society comprising many different religions and social practises managing to live together in social harmony.  But that notion of “we are all one people” is under threat in India these days [7], and we need more artistic presentations that evoke our communal compassion and remind us of what we share, rather those that just evoke individual pride.

A Feminist Perspective
Of course a drama about young girls winning wrestling competitions is naturally going to have a feminist perspective, and many people have praised the film for this.  But I am not alone in feeling that the feminist sympathies are limited here [8,9].  It is true that, as one friend of Geeta’s and Babita’s tells them at one point in the film, many young girls in India are only seen as burdens to their families and are married off to someone they don’t know as soon as they reach the age of 14.  So, the friend tells them, they should be happy that their father takes such an interest in them. 

But Mahavir’s interest in his two daughters seems just to be in support of his own sexist prejudices.  He wants to forcibly convert his two elder daughters into boys so that they can serve as tools for his own purposes.  He even wants to make them look like boys by cutting their hair short and making them wear boys pants.  Then when they look at themselves in the mirror, they will see boys, not girls.  I don’t think he appreciates the unmatchable contributions that girls and women can make in so many endeavours through their own feminine attributes .

So Dangal has its charm, but it also has its limitations, too.

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Dangal Review: A powerhouse of a film about gender equality, love, sacrifice, and patriotism”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (23 December 2016).   
  2. Mike McCahill, “Dangal review – crowdpleasing wrestling drama keeps its eye on the big picture”, The Guardian, (23 December 2016).   
  3. “List of highest-grossing Indian films”, Wikipedia, (3 January 2020).   
  4. “Aamir Khan”, Wikipedia, (1 November 2019).   
  5. The Film Sufi, “‘Taare Zameen Par’ - by Aamir Khan (2007)”, The Film Sufi, (19 November 2019).   
  6. Geeta Phogat won India's first gold medal in women's wrestling in the 55 kg freestyle category at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.  And Babita Kumari Phogat won a bronze medal at the 2012 World Wrestling Championships and won the gold medal in 2014 Commonwealth Games.
  7. Kapil Komireddi, “Is India still a democracy?”, New Statesman, (6 January 2020).   
  8. Namrata Joshi, “Dangal: nationalism over feminism”, The Hindu, (22 December 2016),      
  9. Vartika Pande, “A Feminist Reading Of Dangal”, Feminism in India, (26 December 2016).   

Nitesh Tiwari

Films of Nitesh Tiwari:
  • Dangal - Nitesh Tiwari (2016)

Ashutosh Gowariker

Films of Ashutosh Gowariker:

“Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India” - Ashutosh Gowariker (2001)

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) was a big hit both inside India and internationally.  Released in India under the title Lagaan (meaning “Taxation”), the film was written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and starred and was produced by Aamir Khan (this was the inaugural offering of Khan’s new production company, Aamir Khan Productions).  The film took eight Indian National Film Awards and was nominated for a U. S. Academy Awards Oscar as Best Foreign Film [1].

Actually, Lagaan’s overseas success was somewhat unusual for a Bollywood movie, because such works are often criticized by foreign viewers for being long, melodramatic, and formulaic.  So was this film different in these respects?  Not really. Lagaan is also long (more than 3½ hours), melodramatic, and formulaic, too, but the film is so well crafted that it still offers everyone an outstanding viewing experience [2,3,4,5].

Note that a further aspect of Lagaan that one might imagine could limit the breadth of its popularity concerns a key element of its plot – a cricket match.  In fact the last 80 minutes of the film are devoted to covering a dramatic cricket match, the outcome of which will determine the fates of the principal characters. Most Americans, and probably most citizens of countries that were not once part of the British Empire, have only barely heard of the sport of cricket, but they have never seen it played, and they are unfamiliar with its arcane rules.  And even non-Indians somewhat familiar with cricket might assume that in most parts of the world the intricate game would only be popular among elites.  But cricket is actually very popular across all social strata in India, and I have a number of times seen young boys in Indian working-class neighbourhoods playing pickup cricket on the streets [6].
Lagaan is set in a small town, Champaner, in 1893 during the British Raj.  The way the British overseers operated in those days was that they maintained many local cantonments that tolerated the continued rule of local upper-class rajahs as long as these rulers paid high taxes to their British overlords for “maintaining the peace” in their regions.  But in this film we learn that there have been extensive droughts in Champaner over the last two years, and the impoverished farmers were unable to pay their taxes to the local rajah last year.  This year the drought conditions are the same, but the intolerant commanding officer of the local cantonment, Captain Andrew Russell (played by Paul Blackthorne), is now demanding a doubled tax – last year’s unpaid taxes and this year’s too.

We early on get a glimpse of the differences in humanity of a couple of the key players in this story when we see Russell out hunting deer for sport.  While Russell is cruelly trying to gun down with his rifle some deer that he finds in the forest, a local peasant hiding in the bush, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), repeatedly warns the targeted deer to bolt by secretly throwing a stone at them just before Russell pulls the trigger.  The deer suddenly move, and Russell misses his target.  We see that Russell is trying to exploit living things, and Bhuvan is trying to save them.

Later we see Bhuvan leading a group of villagers to visit local Raja Puran Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) to beseech him for tax relief.  When they approach the rajah’s palace, they see British officers, including Russell, playing cricket on the palace grounds.  Bhuvan happens to make a casual, derogatory remark about the frivolity of the game, and Russell takes immediate offence.  The British captain challenges the villagers to a high-stakes three-day cricket match.   If the villagers lose, they will have to pay triple the usual tax; but if they win, they will be exempt from paying any taxes for three years.  They will have three months to prepare for the match.

Of course, the chances of the villagers winning such a match are essentially zero, because none of them have ever played cricket before, while the British are experienced players of the game.  But the headstrong Bhuvan, recognizing that the villagers’ situation is hopeless anyway if something isn’t done, feels they have nothing to lose.  So against the wishes of his village comrades, he accepts the wager on behalf of the whole village.

The next section of the film concerns Bhuvan’s efforts to recruit villagers for their cricket team.  He reminds them that cricket has some similarities with their traditional game of gilli-danda.  But for the most part, they’re going to have to learn the game of cricket from scratch.  One of the basic things they have to learn is simply how to catch a ball.

Along the way here, there are occasions for promoting some of the positive themes of the film.  One of these concerns the implicit benefits of engaging in a competitive activity that is played by the rules.  You have to learn the rules and agree to play fair.  This serves as a reminder that the idea of (or at least the emphasis of) fair-play and sportsmanship is one of the great contributions that the British have made to world culture.

Another positive theme of the film, and one that is very important for modern India, is the promotion of the idea that Indians, despite their various cultural disparities, are one people.  This was the idea promoted by Gandhi and Nehru, and it is reflected in this film by Bhuvan’s ecumenical efforts to recruit members for the cricket team.  He convinces his colleagues to set aside their various prejudices concerning caste, class, and religion and to remember that everyone is just a person entitled to the same rights and degrees of respect.  When you are recruiting teammates, the main criteria are skills and capabilities, not caste.  So eventually Bhuvan recruits a team consisting of Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems, and an Untouchables (Dalit).  He even recruits one player (Kachra, the Dalit), whose semi-crippled arm makes him naturally suited for cricket spin-bowling.  Once the team is assembled, it is time for them to engage in earnest practice.

Naturally, there has to be some romantic element in such a movie, and Lagaan is no exception.  Gauri (Gracy Singh) is a beautiful village girl who has her heart set on Bhuvan, and there are many scenes in the film showing their tentatively tender interactions.  Gracy Singh, who plays Gauri, is an excellent dancer, by the way, and her captivating dancing is an artistic highlight of  many of the musical numbers in the movie. 

Of course, we expect some romantic complications, too, and those come from Andrew Russell’s beautiful younger sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who also falls in love with Bhuvan (again an instance of dismissing cultural, national, and class boundaries).  Unlike her arrogant and self-serving brother, Elizabeth is naturally warm-hearted, and she feels her brother’s treatment of the villagers is unfair.  So she secretly sneaks out to the village and teaches the nascent cricket players some basic aspects of the game.  And on one occasion she even manages to come over and give them a real, authentic cricket ball, replacing the makeshift one they had been using.

Finally we get to the three-day cricket match, with each team having one innings (one turn at bat), and that’s what occupies the last 80 minutes of the film.  Andrew Russell wins the coin toss and elects for his team to bat first.  And as you might expect, there are many melodramatic turns to this match. 

One serious problem that comes up for the village squad is when one of their players, Lakha (Yashpal Sharma), betrays his team and begins secretly helping the British team.  Lakha, we learn, has a crush on Gauri and is jealous of her preference for Bhuvan.  Lakha hopes that a village-team defeat will disgrace Bhuvan and thereby enhance his chances for Gauri.  So on the first day of the match, Lakha intentionally drops several catchable balls in the field that could have resulted in outs for the British team.  When Lakha’s perfidy is finally exposed, his teammates want to smash him, but the relentlessly humanistic Bhuvan convinces them to accept Lakha’s repentance and allow him the chance to redeem himself.  And on the second day of the match, Lakha does make some outstanding plays in the field.

The dramatic three-day match eventually winds to a close, and despite the presumed vast superiority of the British team, the outcome comes down to the last ball.  I’ll let you watch the film to see for yourself what happens.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, what makes Lagaan a fine film is the high quality of the production values throughout.  The acting is emphatic and melodramatic, but it suits a narrative like this.  In particular, the persistent frown, presumably connoting concentration, on the part of Aamir Khan works very well here, and this is one of the best performances of that popular actor.    

I also liked the half dozen musical pieces, many of them featuring outstanding solo and ensemble dancing, (my favourite ones were the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th pieces) scattered through the first two-thirds of the film.  I have already referred to Gracy Singh’s superb dancing, but mention should also be made of Aamir Khan’s excellent dancing, too.  And overall, the film music by A. R. Rahman is a fine contribution.

In addition, the cinematography of Anil Mehta and the film editing of Ballu Saluja is very professional.   Those, combined with Ashutosh Gowariker’s script, enable the filmmakers to portray a cricket match and make it clear even for the uninitiated.  My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, would be that there was a little too much screen-time devoted to villagers ecstatically celebrating good plays that were made by their team in the field. 

And at the very end of the film when the match is completed, rain clouds form and rain begins to fall, thankfully signalling the end of the long drought.  So viewers can be assured at the close that good times are ahead.

  1. “List of accolades received by Lagaan, Wikipedia, (23 December 2019).    
  2. Dave Kehr, “FILM REVIEW; The Cricketing of an Indian Village”, The New York Times, (8 May 2002).   
  3. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India”, Austin Chronicle, (24 May 2002).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “LAGAAN: ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIA”, RogerEbert.com, (7 June 2002).   
  5. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)”, Combustible Celluloid, (2002).   
  6. “Cricket in India”, Wikipedia, (6 December 2019).