Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal which has predictably become one of the most well-received and talked about films of the festive season is a curious case where everything being said about the film is true and not really true at the same time. The film is certainly well crafted and features immaculate performances by the cast. Aamir Khan delivers one of his career best performances providing a rock solid foundation for the film to build upon. In fact the film will be certainly considered among the best sports films in Bollywood, if not the very best. And having said all that, the film is far from its claim of being ideologically progressive and instead craftily reinstates a strong set of regressive values and ideals.
The film is based on real life incidents revolving around amateur wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) who had to give up wrestling because of financial difficulties. He longs for a son who’d fulfil his dream of winning a gold medal for India in an international tournament. But his dream turns to disappointment when his wife gives birth to daughters, one after another. The despondent Mahavir Singh almost severs all ties with wrestling until one day his eldest daughters, Geeta and Babita, thrashes up a neighbourhood bully for calling them names. This incident makes Mahavir Singh sit up and take notice of his daughters’ potential and thus begins the two girls’ journey in the world of wrestling, from amateur to professional, from local to international, all under the strict and passionate mentorship of their father.
A majority of the credit for the film’s technical accomplishment goes to cinematographer Sethu Sriram. Almost the entire duration of the film is marked by careful shot design and compositions resulting in images which contribute to the narration. One can recall the first half, where he uses narrowed down and restricted indoor spaces of the Phogat household in contrast to the vast and sprawling exteriors, adding a subtle and significant layer to the storytelling, a sense of liberation as opposed to the conservative mind set. There is also interesting use of compositions in regular geometric shapes, an emphasis on straight lines and right angles, throughout the training sequences, reinforcing the notion of firm discipline and a regularized schedule followed by the characters. And complimenting the accomplishments of cinematography, Ballu Saluja’s editing leaves a deep mark of its own, with perfect selection of shots and keeping the narrative flow steady. The excellence in editing is probably most visible in the wrestling scenes. Unlike most sports films, the sporting events become integral part of the narrative instead of being a mere spectacle. With the perfect combination of shot selection as well as duration, the drama inherent to the event of wrestling becomes an essential component of the film’s overall dramatic structure, its conflicts and crises. The scene where Mahavir Singh is stopped from attending Geeta’s final fight and he only realizes the outcome on hearing India’s National Anthem, inspired from the iconic scene in Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), is also quite effective.
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However, despite all its technical accomplishments, the film is an ideologically failed project, if there was any! Contrary to the trailer of the film as well as its promotion and even reception, Dangal is hardly about the girls and their achievements; it is a film about the fulfilment of a father’s dreams. The film hardly bothers itself with woman’s issues, let alone feminism and instead is completely focused on carefully constructing the notion of a benevolent and nationalist patriarch. Right from the word go, the entire investment is on a gold medal for the country, testing not only one’s sporting skills but more importantly one’s patriotism. And thus emerges an authoritative father figure grooming his daughters by suppressing their desires and shearing off their feminine aspects, all in the name of distraction. And furthermore, the film’s idea of power remains equivalent to masculinity which becomes glaring as the girls’ empowerment is put in contrast to their male cousin who is continuously ridiculed for being not powerful/male enough! In the name of parental wisdom and care, the patriarchal male ego looms large over the narrative which comfortably goes in tandem with Aamir Khan’s almost megalomaniac star persona and his usual practice to hog the show. Even during the climax, when Geeta is involved in nail biting final match, the narrative focus is clearly more invested in the crisis and vulnerability of her father who’s been unlawfully restrained by the nifty coach trying, quite ironically, to hog all the credit for Geeta’s success for himself!
The fact that a Bollywood film turned out to be patriarchal and regressive comes hardly as surprise. But the interesting or rather curious aspect here is the fact that Aamir Khan as a star is probably on his way to achieve a uniquely powerful position as an instrument of opinion. Within the last decade only, he featured in two films, the self-directed Taare Zameen Par (2007) and 3 Idiots (Rajkumar Hirani, 2009) where he strongly advocated against the so-called parental guidance and its impact on the children. And now he has become vocal about the opposite side of the debate as well. In a way, this leaves no room for any oppositional voice, as it’s known in a democratic set-up. And backed by a strong nationalist fervour, he has finally arrived at the most coveted position in a capitalist democracy; any side you choose, you end up rooting for Aamir Khan!
Arup Ratan Samajdar