Daddy knows best, does he?

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Dangal is designed to be so watchable that it’s easy to gloss over its sophistry. Patriarchy, jingoism and expedient falsifications keep the biopic’s narrative Aamir-centric.

For all its fabulous crafting and phenomenal success, Dangal is a missed opportunity to make better cinema. After all, the real life it wants to recreate is incredibly interesting in itself. | Special Arrangement / The Hindu

If you are planning on watching Dangal — and there’s certainly some good cinema happening in it — you shouldn’t be reading this yet. Lots of spoilers ahead!

First off, Dangal is a beautifully made film. It’s another feather in the cap of Bollywood’s bravura new mainstream efforts, a risky cap that Aamir Khan has donned expertly before. The elusive actor — he takes on a lead role in one film at a time and spaces them out by a couple of years on average, his reputation for seeking perfection in his craft part of his star lore — has also striven to deliver meaningful entertainment within the commercial framework, most notably with 2007’s Taare Zameen Par, which was about a dyslexic child and his longing to be understood; 2009’s 3 Idiots, which depicted the terrible consequences of hyper-competitive education systems; and 2014’s PK, a commentary on blind faith and religious fakery.

Such unique outings have lent renown to the ‘message’ in Aamir’s films. This idealistic image is additionally evident in his anchoring of Satyameva Jayate, a TV show focussed on social issues, and the co-production of indie cinema like 2010’s Peepli Live, a scathing satire on the ratings-driven media.

It’s not that other actors haven’t dared to be different. But in Aamir is a performer who wants to be a top-ranked star even as he wagers his ‘hero’ persona, conventionally a prerequisite to superstardom. This courage is most evident in Dangal, for which he gained about 25 kilos to play the older Mahavir Singh Phogat, his gait ponderous, hair grey and mood dour through most of the film, favouring a truer physical transformation over cosmetic solutions because, otherwise, as he said, “mazaa nahin aayega [it won’t be fun]”:

 

I stayed up till past midnight to get tickets for the Sunday after Dangal opened, like any serious movie fan would, and watched it alongside a receptive and enthusiastic audience. As the film runs away at the box office, setting heartening new records in ticket sales despite substituting formulaic plotlines with a sports biopic pitching for the empowerment of women, it is tempting not to question the wisdom of its makers.

The casting director, Mukesh Chhabra, must take a bow for the superbly essayed roles by predominantly novice actors; an eye for detail and research is evident in the earthy Haryanvi diction and the believable sets; the music is good and does not disrupt the narrative, with a rousing title track used to great effect across the film; and it marvellously showcases the magnificent yet de-glamourised sport of wrestling.

But Dangal also packages patriarchy and patriotism so fabulously well that we must pause to wonder if we have been dazzled into complicity over its content. The makers of this film claim to be serious, so it would be disingenuous to compare them with ‘the norm’ or offer the laudability of their effort as an excuse for their insidious failings.

Dangal sets off on firm ground, the very earth of Haryana’s streets, akharas and fields suffused with what may be described as feel-good realism. Director Nitesh Tiwari, who also wrote and helmed Chillar Party and Bhootnath Returns, is a seasoned ad filmmaker transitioning smoothly to feature films, not unlike his accomplished peers in Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra, Gauri Shinde, R. Balki or Rajiv Menon. He uses every visual and verbal cue as a storytelling prop that is so pretty and often so… pat. Perhaps this is the result of training in telling alluring stories within the short seconds allowed by commercial breaks.

It is not Aamir but Shah Rukh Khan who demonstrated greater intellectual honesty in 2016 with his bluntly self-exploratory Fan and his willingness to hand over the limelight in Dear Zindagi to the protégé essayed by Alia Bhatt. In Dangal, though, frame after micro-managed frame unfolds as emotive eye candy in service of the superstar. The gallery applauds as if on cue, unmindful of the lost nuance, or the opportunity to pause, assimilate and reflect.

The trailer sums up the story rather well:

 

The narrative delights in both quotidian pathos and wry humour. The story is voiced-over by the gawky nephew who gets dragged into his cousins’ transformation unwillingly at first, and then begs to be let into their greater destiny, his affectionate wit a disarming foil to the high drama of the proceedings. Aamir is not merely pivotal to the story: he controls it — to its detriment — although this is less evident in the better-scripted first half. His intransigent grip over his family is humorously depicted as essential to success in the song ‘Haanikarak Bapu’.

 

On the surface, this is a tiger dad who pushes his daughters to better things for their own sakes even as he secretly cares for them (in the one fleeting scene that establishes this, the forbidding father presses their aching legs as they sleep, confessing that the coach and parent cannot coexist). In societies where fathers are remote and fearful figures of authority, this isn't a stretch to imagine. It follows that he cannot be expected to explain his vision to his reluctant wards, even when they are socially ostracised all the way from school to village, their young lives as girls who wrestle turned into the butt of vicious jokes.

At home, the Phogat sisters are not only trained as disciplined athletes who run, exercise and practice to the exclusion of spicy food, TV, social events and school (though they continue to attend it), which appears logical, they are also psychologically ‘toughened up’. The script achieves this with disturbing methods that are cloaked as comic timing — the girls must finish their fill of pani puris straight out of bed in silent, pre-dawn darkness, with the vendor’s cart summoned especially for the task to their doorstep, the man as agog as us (“Go on, have more,” the father says, a massive figure standing implacably with his arms crossed over his chest, as is his wont, while they gulp down their favourite food nervously, and the audience sniggers). They must jump into a muddy river from a bridge above it, terrified first and shivering after (that’s actually an important life lesson, it is later revealed).

They must eat chicken to build their strength (which they manage easily enough; it’s only the otherwise ineffectual mother who demurs from cooking it in her kitchen). And they must have their hair shorn into uncaringly executed military crew cuts, standing in what could be a courtyard, sobbing silently. The invasive nature of this action is chilling and follows their hopeless attempts to wriggle out of the rigours of training with ‘excuses’, which includes the calamitous claim that they have lice in their hair. Whereas their father dismisses everything else, to the merriment of the viewers, and the film often extracts such support for a virtuous Phogat, he ‘fixes’ this ‘problem’ decisively and, as it later turns out, permanently.

The length of women’s hair has been a subject of patriarchal control in many societies, resulting in perceptions that cannot be altered even today. Historically, one of the intentions behind the tonsuring of ‘inauspicious’ widows was to uglify them for undesirability, although very short hair is today perceived in many orthodox communities as objectionably ‘modern’ or ‘western’. In Dangal, when the father orders his daughters’ hair cut severely the first time, it may be assumed he is motivated by some practical reason, such as the dry mud of the akhara in which they practice for hours, but the insistence on sheared hair gets baffling and oppressive when the girls graduate to the rubber mat.

The older Geeta’s nascent efforts to feel beautiful and/or feminine include growing her tresses out, and this is shown as a betrayal of her father, no matter that she keeps her hair tightly bound when she plays, as athletes across the spectrum do (Dangal specialises in such self-serving realism), and the visible sprouts of her self-assertion don’t come in the way of her commitment to the sport itself. The girl’s naïve embrace of new freedoms away from a hyper-controlled home should have been cause for sympathy and light-heartedness (now conspicuously absent) but for the script’s missionary devotion to Phogat senior. It follows that nobody is surprised when Geeta begins to fail in everything she does from the day she tries to think for herself.

The pent-up frustration of a young woman boxed into a future that gives her many accolades but little freedom over her life and person hints at more only because Fatima Sana Shaikh, the actor who plays the role so convincingly, invests it with such subtlety. In Dangal, hers is a doomed ‘rebellion’ in which she listens to her coach, hangs out with her fellow athletes, shops for pretty clothes, watches TV and eats a pani puri.

While her family views her with misgivings and counsels her to get back in line, her fledgling interest in boys combined with the simple pleasure she takes in looking at herself in the mirror as her hair grows out is shown as a counterpoint to her increasing distance from the neglected father she avoids on phone — the subtext is not her difficulty in articulating her aspirations to him but the neglect of elders as their offspring grow wings. “Baal badhaa liye tumne? [You have grown your hair?]”, she is asked rhetorically, as the stage is set for her sad dénouement and she loses match after match, alone and ignored by the world and her family at major international events, her unravelling juxtaposed against her pappa cheering the rise of her still-obedient sister to the Nationals. The moral is plain: no good ever comes out of defying daddy.

In its quest to present Aamir Khan’s Phogat as the real and only hero, Dangal descends to demonising his hurdles. Nowhere is this more visible than in the caricaturing of Geeta’s coach, who is revealed to be petty, egotistic and incompetent, and presented as another key reason for her failures. Sports bureaucracy in India is easily pilloried but playing down the opportunities and support afforded by a ‘National Sports Academy’ is a low shot (going by its location in the film, this could be the Sports Authority of India’s Patiala-based Netaji Subas National Institute of Sports, said to be Asia’s largest such facility). Moreover, the film is outrageous in its concoction of a national-level coach who locks up a parent before his daughter’s finals match. Ironically, the man who trained the actors for the brilliantly executed wrestling scenes, Arjuna awardee Kripa Shankar Bishnoi, coaches India’s junior women’s wrestling team.

 

Pyara Ram Sondhi, the coach who helmed the training for the Indian women’s wrestling team in the 2010 Commonwealth Games shown in the film’s climax, is upset over his defamation but with disclaimers at the start of Bollywood movies beginning to resemble legal notices, and the smashing success of the film in the post-truth era, his voice is hardly heard.

 

The list of ‘liberties’ taken by what claims to be a biopic would run into pages, and includes misrepresentations of Geeta Phogat’s actual and meritorious performance in the international arena in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games; her dominance of the final match that’s shown as a nail-biting cliff-hanger by the film; the achievements of the other Phogat sisters, Ritu and Sangita, and their cousins, Vinesh and Priyanka, whom Phogat adopted after his brother passed away, which don’t even find a mention in the film's footnotes; that Phogat’s youngest offspring is, in fact, a son, Dushyant, who is also training as a wrestler; and yes, the young women appear to enjoy dressing up and have varying lengths of hair in real life, which clearly hasn't come in the way of achievements that include qualifying for the Olympics and winning at other world championships. Phogat, who was given the Dronacharya Award (Lifetime) in 2016, appears grateful for what the film has done for wrestling and women in sports, subjects so starved of popular attention that when it finally arrives with Aamir Khan’s backing as a Bollywood superhit, it has to be welcomed unquestioningly.

 

This leaves no way to verify the truthfulness of the biopic from the family it purports to document. Curiously, there is little by way of factual information available on the Phogat story online and Mahavir Phogat’s Wikipedia page is sparse. His authorised biography, Akhada, authored by journalist Saurabh Duggal and released just ahead of the film, reportedly says it was his wife who longed for a son, not Phogat himself. Some might say none of it matters. Fortunately, Phogat has already achieved a great deal more than Dangal attempts to show. The lion-hearted revolution he started was gaining ground before Bollywood’s arc lights fell upon it and is set to continue after they swing away.

Perhaps Dangal’s sophisticated makers meant that the real winner in the film is not the Phogat family or women’s wrestling. It is apna desh — our country. But it is jingoism that rears its ugly head as Dangal reduces sporting culture to grimacing opponents who play viciously whereas Phogat roots altruistically for India (his daughters’ motivations are limited to pleasing him and glorying in their successes). “Shaabaash!” Aamir finally beams at the end of the film, when his daughter brings home the gold, and nothing less will do, turning the principles he sought to promote in Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots on their head. If the audience stands up to comply with the Supreme Court’s order when the national anthem is played before the film, it’s up on its feet spontaneously when it’s heard towards the end in this film. Such is the power of well-told cinema and it is deployed here to pitch for patriotism. It says something that Dangal is on its way to becoming ‘the biggest blockbuster in the history of Bollywood’ despite the adverse affects of demonetisation.

Dangal’s most insidious disservice, however, is to the cause of women’s rights. In one ridiculous scene, set up to prove Phogat’s superior knowledge as Geeta takes to the mat for an important match — and she is by then a senior professional athlete — contrasting instructions are yelled her by two men — her coach and her father. This happens after she has duly been chastised for her ‘waywardness’ and tearfully made the call for which the paterfamilias waits. Thereafter, she is shown to risk her career repeatedly by defying her coach and the administration, contravening rules as Aamir’s Phogat controls her training secretly with resources as rudimentary as the shady video shop he hires to play-back match videos (the film gets funny again).

On the mat at the aforementioned game, Geeta’s eyes dart this way and that, and she is desperate to win her father’s approval back by doing exactly as he says. Her subservience is rewarded with victory and she is instantly back on the road to fame and glory. Nowhere is the puppet-like stature patriarchy accords a woman more evident than in this scene. Indeed, for a film that periodically asserts the need to welcome daughters and emancipate girls, there isn't one empowered woman in sight.

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