“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.


Notes:
  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).   

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