You have to fight in a way that people will remember you. If you win silver, sooner or later, you will be forgotten. If you win gold, you will be an example, And examples are given, child… not forgotten. See those girls? If you win tomorrow, you will not win alone. Millions of girls like them will win along with you. It will be a victory for every girl who is considered inferior to boys; who is forced into household chores, who is married off to just raise children. Tomorrow’s match is the most important one. Because tomorrow, we are not fighting just that Australian, but all those people who think lesser of girls.
Before I proceed, I just want to make some things perfectly clear. Firstly, I have only watched 2 Hindi films in my life—Lagaan (another Aamir Khan sports drama) and now, Dangal so I really have little Bollywood metric by which to compare Dangal too. Secondly, I am not interested in the historical or factual accuracy of the events depicted in the film Dangal, and am going to judge it solely on the merits of its story (except when the real life facts are relevant to making it a better story). Thirdly, Dangal has been hailed by some as a feminist film and by others as a piece of patriarchal propaganda, so I believe I cannot avoid assessing it through that lens as well but I must now stress that as a man myself, I can only speak for my own personal brand of feminism, warts and all.
Dangal is a very good looking film. I felt I was in good hands when I saw the gorgeously shot opening credit sequence featuring men of all size and age in skimpy underpants wrestle one another in the dirt, and the severe, forbidding stares all of them gave to the camera—it’s a rather striking image, and it bellows sternly, “This is a man’s world” to the audience. For a film which is almost 3 hours long, it felt like its runtime is less than 2 hour. This, I suppose, meant that Dangal was expertly paced and edited. I am also pleased to discover that this is not a musical where the characters will break out in song and dance to explain how they feel (though the soundtrack still did a lot of hand-holding). I am not saying I don’t like musicals—my favourite film of 2016 is Moana after all–but I don’t think that format is right for Dangal‘s subject matter. The main theme (the one that goes “DANGAL, DANGAL”) was suitably powerful and hot blooded.
And the wrestling scenes. Wow. They are as well choreographed as any wuxia epic; and each bout tells us something about a character or advances the plot crucially in some way. I hung on each manoeuvre, each flip, each fall. If I have to pick a favourite, it’s the one in which Geeta beats Mahavir in a round of dirt wrestling.
Speaking of which, Aamir Khan cuts one hell of figure. Short but formidable. Words as blunt as rocks with eyes as sharp as knives. His transformation throughout the film from a young retired wrestler to a paunchy, graying silverback is one hell of a commitment to a character.
The story mechanics whirred efficiently for the most part until the very end where Aamir Khan’s character was locked away in a custodial closet by a villainous coach so he can take sole credit for Geeta’s golden triumph. I am a little split about it (a feeling that I have towards a lot of things in this film). On one hand, it is one of those rare moments that this supposedly feminist film actually allows its female lead to have a victory unaided by her male patriarchal saviour. On the other, it feels superfluous and manufactured; a cartoonish act by an obligatory 2-dimensional villain character that feels alien to the tone of the film. It did however, also gave us that moment with Aamir Khan and the national anthem which was incredibly affecting.
Now, this is not Geeta’s or the Phogat sisters’ story. This is a story about their father, Mahavir Singh Phogat, and his dream of winning gold for his country. There is this urge to either label him as a feminist or a patriarch (albeit an atypical one) but I feel that he earned both epithets many times over in the course of the film. Again, I must remind you that I am talking about Aamir Khan’s Mahavir, and not the real life person.
He is not the idealised version of a feminist father in say millennial Sweden. He makes authoritative decisions about the upbringing of his children while his wife could only stare at him disapprovingly at him. He imposes his will and dreams on his daughters, who have no interest in wrestling at all (at least in the beginning). He cuts their hair even as they tearfully begged him not to. He is portrayed as a crucial element in their success, without whom they hadn’t a chance in patriarchal hell. The ultimate bit of character development Geeta underwent is basically this: dad is always right I was wrong to question him. One reviewer I read characterised Mahavir’s methods as “abuse dressed as tough love”. I find it hard to disagree with these criticisms, which are all valid.
On the other hand, the village Mahavir and his daughter hailed from is in one of the worst states in India in terms of female literacy and female infanticide. While the film shied from the harshest reality of misogyny, you see very realistic clues of how un-feminist that society is. You see it in the multitudes of tips the villagers to help Mahavir conceive a son. You see it in their disappointment every time a girl was born. You see it in the face of Mahavir’s gloating neighbour when he was giving out sweets to celebrate the birth of his son. You hear how Mahavir’s boss would not give him leave from work for Geeta’s tournament but said if it was for her marriage instead, he would have assented. When I studied in India, I learned that this is just how it is there. I learned how it is illegal to disclose an unborn child’s sex to prevent sex selective abortion. I learned about dowry murders. Someone once characterised the situation to me as: “a son is an asset while a daughter is a liability, to be married off as soon as you can before you incur more losses.”
Against all that, Mahavir is a militant radical feminist. I think the most emotional moment for me was that wedding which Geeta and Babita attended. Their friend, a child bride, told them that they are lucky that their father even thinks of them as his children, and cares to try and give them a life beyond one of female domestic subservience. This also served as a turning point for Geeta and Babita, because right there at that point, they consciously exercised their agency to go along with Mahavir’s dream instead of fighting him.
And the film does show Mahavir being involved in the care of his kids, helping to put the baby to sleep, helping his daughters with schoolwork; even before he realised that they can be vessels for his dream. If we can set aside the debate of how much control should parents have over their children’s lives and dreams (which is another fascinating ideological chainsaw I won’t be juggling in this act), what Mahavir essentially did was treat Geeta and Babita the way he would have treated a son, and right there… that is feminism in its most fundamental form.
I will also go one step further and argue that the decision to make this film Mahavir’s story is a right one. This is not the ideal feminist film that the world wants—it was never meant to be that. It’s a feminist film that the fathers of India need. Warts and all.