Art & Culture

Dangal is a twisted triumph of patriarchy and patriotism

Suraj Kumar Thube
Suraj Kumar ThubeDec 31, 2016 | 17:32

Dangal is a twisted triumph of patriarchy and patriotism

The film Dangal can simply be described in one sentence - aggressive nationalism and hyper masculinity on full display. With all the talk of it making a strong feminist statement, it renders the female wrestlers as docile puppets in the hands of the father, patriarch of the family, who uses them instrumentally to fulfill his unachieved dream of bagging an international medal for the country. The female body merely remains the site where these two cherished ideals unfold.


Why people are touting it as a strong feminist film is beyond me. There is absolutely no sense of agency and ownership in what you do, hardly any signs of empowerment where the female wrestlers are seen honing celebrated masculine traits and everything getting channelised through the patriarch of the family who knows it best.

With the pervasive melodramatic quotient, it falls short even with delivering a believable entertainment tale. Sadly, it's not the girls who win in the end. It's the patriarch, the one who commands unquestionable obedience, who wins the battle against his ego.

It is not about how the father cuts their hair or how he shows no signs of happiness after fathering four girls, the problem is much more than that. When a childhood gets ruined under the name of giving your nation a medal in the future, you sense something is deeply disquieting.

Should this be seen as a story that sets a good precedent at the cost of compromising your own sense of individuality?

Even if the narrated story comes from Haryana, notorious for its low female literacy, there is surely a more humane side to depict of the society than a largely stereotyped image of the society which has no place for the female sex. Contrivances get projected as entertaining but it comes at a cost of deviating away from the reality. Sure, the film does say that it has taken liberties in depicting this real life story. That however becomes the lose point where you fail to give justice to both drama and reality.


Wrestling, especially in North India, has historically been associated with deeply masculine traits of strength, valour and also has had an inebriating sense of militant nationalism associated with it during the colonial period.

The Akhara as a masculine preserve which extols male sexuality by juxtaposing it with celibacy, has always been a public act that seldom remains an act of sport. It transcends the boundaries of the same and plays the role of the carrier of certain sort of patriotism which as a slow poison has all but been internalised within the psyche of the modern mass psychology.

There is no better medium than patriarchy that augments this romanticised nationalist project. The Guru-Shishya tradition strengthens it further wherein any deviation from the master calls for nothing but societal contempt and reprobation. Joseph Alter brings this aspect masterfully in his book, The Wrestler's body: Idea and Ideology in North India, where he brings out the importance of how raising the master to the level of the divine, showing respect by prostrating in front of his ideational mastery and the indelible nature of disciple over the body that gets planted in the shishyas mind, almost in a hegemonic way is symptomatic of our feudal mindset.


He rightly points out that this master-disciple relationship is different than the one that we find in classical music as the latter has a long history of gharanas whose varied styles are conscientiously followed. Wrestling has no such past where the immediate Guru becomes the one who shows you the path of success. He is venerated not just for his experience and his physicality (more often the guru is a pale shadow of what he used to be once upon a time) but more so for the culture he has abided with for decades.

This forms the base of our yet deeply embedded notions of how the cultural-community remains superior to the ideal of individuality. Moving on to the characters of the film, one that stands out for all the wrong reasons is the head coach of the National Sports Academy. By showing him as a villainous character who is hell-bent in applying his own methods on the new trainees, he is shown as a hot-headed person who craves for fame based on the rules which he himself sets.

Had it not been for this character, Mahavir Phogat can never become the sort of transcendental hero he becomes by the end of the film. Even when he shown to be a patriarch to begin with, we are told how his decisions are for the betterment of his girls.

At the age where motley ideas naturally get explored through your first real encounter with socialising in your immediate neighborhood to begin with, we see a father telling her wife to give one year to see the results of his grueling workout schedule. Should this be celebrated even if the girls go on and win big in their respective lives?

Should this be seen as a story that sets a good precedent (as his father dearly wants it to) at the cost of compromising your own sense of individuality? What if they fail in life? ( as lakhs of children do when they succumb to parental pressure in engaging the most productive part of their lives in something that they never wanted to do in the first place)

Who are we then going to blame for this failure?

Surely, it will be turned back to the children for not putting in the desired efforts in place. Success stories through this path look good because at that time, an introspection of how one reached that place is deemed superfluous. On the contrary, failure will see a whole barrage of diatribes coming your way for your basic incompetency.

Andre Agassi's autobiography Open gives a brutally honest account of how he never wanted to play Lawn tennis but was only forced by his father to practice hitting thousands of balls a day to become a champion of the game. It looks commendable because he succeeded. This story would have gone into some oblivion had it turned out to be a colossal failure.

Mahavir Phogat's patriarchal gaze is nothing but that of a panopticon, to paraphrase Jeremy Bentham wherein he constantly keeps a track of what his daughters are up to. It immediately turns into a psychological block where you know that it's not possible for him to keep an eye on them all the time but the very idea of you being watched always is enough for your natural instincts to get subdued.

Unfortunately, the one thing this film is going to do is to further perpetuate the age old preaching of how children do not understand what is good for them. The patriarch then gets the moral license to mould his daughters views on not just the sport but also how one envisions family, relationships, society and the ever so mystical project of the "nation".

Last updated: December 31, 2016 | 17:35
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