Dangal: nationalism over feminism

Even as the film touches a chord, it makes one compare and contrast it with other Indian sports films, and not glowingly at that.

Updated - December 22, 2016 07:24 pm IST

Published - December 22, 2016 01:50 pm IST

A poster of ‘Dangal.’

A poster of ‘Dangal.’

One of my favourite Aamir Khan moments in Hindi cinema is his breakdown scene in Dil Chahta Hai   (2001) — when a hitherto carefree, untroubled Akash desperately tries to hold back tears in the face of a personal crisis during a telephone talk with his perceptive dad.

Needless to say, he is immediately summoned home to Mumbai from Sydney. That telephonic homecoming comes a full circle in Dangal. Khan, playing the real life champion wrestler and an estranged father, Mahavir Singh Phogat, hears his weeping prodigal daughter Geeta admit to her mistakes and return to the fold.

It is just as affecting a scene as the one in Dil Chahta Hai   and, in a way, captures the best bits about Dangal : pitch-perfect casting (can the irrepressible casting director Mukesh Chhabra ever go wrong?) and well calibrated performances.

So there’s Khan essaying the role of a man treading the middle ground between being a guru and a father to his daughters; caring for them yet maintaining a formal distance, the affection conveyed with a seemingly casual greeting: “ Kaisi hai pehelwan.

The actor undergoes a miraculous physical transformation, playing the role with his body, the girth and the gait than just eyes and face and wrestling away like he was to the akhada born. He is a veteran at the acting game but even the young actresses (Fatima Sana Shaikh as Geeta and Sanya Malhotra as Babita Phogat, and Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar as their respective younger versions) are just as consummate as the gritty, feisty, witty siblings, greatly in tune with each other.

There is an authenticity to the characters, the lingo, the humour, the give-and-take and the terrain — be it Balali village in Bhiwani, Haryana, or the mud akhadas and mat wrestling rings in the international tournaments. The rousing wrestling bouts (full marks to coach Kripa Shankar Patel Bishnoi) have even an ignorant, sports-challenged viewer like me invested. Specially the ‘9 seconds-5 points’ clincher of a climax. So will Dangal   (along with Sultan ) now bring yet another unsung game into spotlight beyond the beautiful, slow motion ode to it in the opening titles?

However, even as the film touches a chord, it makes one compare and contrast it with other Indian sports films, and not just glowingly at that. While in its entirety, Dangal might feel like a competent, rounded product with just the right emotional masala, it still didn’t leave me satisfied enough. Is it because the film is too straightforward and totally unsurprising?

After all, the underdog triumphing against the odds, snatching victory from near defeat and traversing from disgrace to redemption is a familiar arc in almost every sports film.

It didn’t leave me with that “something new” feeling that Lagaan did with its audacity of turning a popular game into a fablesque, politically-correct spectacle about unity. Dangal may point fingers at the malaise in sports officialdom but wasn’t that much better explored in a Chak De India ? The grey zones of a coach-protégé relationship were so much more hard-hitting this year in Soumendra Padhi’s Budhia Singh: Born To Run.

Most of all, the gender and empowerment through sports angle reached out to me far much more in Chak De than here. There are chinks in the feminist armour which, to give the film its due, it doesn’t aim to hide but wish it had explored the dilemmas and complexities more than eventually brushing things under the easy nationalistic carpet and justifying everything with “nation before the individual” logic.

The obsession with having a male child, seeing the son as the one to fulfil your dreams and then coming to realise that girls are no less then boys is all very fine. It’s great to see the girls made to go beyond domesticity and early marriages alright but did they have a choice in opting to become wrestlers? What if they had desired to be actresses? In this real life story, the decision-making for women still rests with a man, doesn’t it? Earlier this year I liked the fact that Pink had tried to make men equal participants in women’s rights issues than letting it remain a women’s only thing.

In Dangal, I was left uneasy about the easy celebration of the supposed fall of patriarchy while letting the men actually still remain very much in control. Like when a young friend tells Geeta-Babita: “Kam se kam unhone tumhein aulaad ka darja to diya (At least he gave you the stature of a progeny).” A favour from a man when he could have done worse to the girls.

He sacrifices his job to train them but is it to help them follow their own dreams or have them fulfil his unrealised ones? All I know is that he can get away with anything because he is a desh bhakt , he wants medals not for his own self but the country; his dream is to see the nation win.

The tagline of the film might be about asserting that women are no less than men but ultimately, like every other sports film, it’s all about winning a gold medal for India. Dangal also carries the burden of patriotism right down to the fictional twist in the tale, the ultra jingoistic finale, complete with the national anthem (remember Mary Kom ?) and Bharat Mata Ki Jai sloganeering.

Quite like Amitabh Bachchan in Pink , it’s interesting to see how this year, Dangal too has a patriarch at the helm. A patriarch who may seem rigid, unbending and dictatorial; whose ways may seem to cause immediate pain and discomfort but ensure a happy future for the daughters (and the nation) in the long run.

Entirely apt for today’s times and I am certain we are going to see more of such characters in the times to come. Aren’t films, after all, a reflection of our reality?

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