Dangal is an ultimate feminist anthem with a large, generous, middle-aged man at its core
A joyous, innately humane film that uplifts you, whirls you in the air, and then places you gently back on the ground.
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This is how a film is made. With passion, commitment, and a gigantic heart as big as Aamir Khan’s expansive middle in Dangal.
The actor and producer stands rock solid in the centre of the film as Mahavir Singh Phogat, allowing the women around him to twist, twirl, lift, lunge, leap and grapple in one of the most extraordinarily physical movies we’ve seen of late.
Dangal is perhaps the strongest feminist movie to have come out of Bollywood in a year that has seen a parade of strong women — from Pink to Dear Zindagi.
It is also a tribute to sheer physical power. We’re used to seeing women’s bodies on screen — in various stages of undress, designed to titillate and excite. Not since Mary Kom have we seen it so athletic, so perfectly proportioned, so powerful, so designed to be a weapon of mass destruction. And so suited to the arduous and enthralling sport of wrestling.
There is no artifice in the wrestling here — the girls fall hard in the mud, they sweat, they gasp, they grunt. You can feel the exhaustion, the stress, the pain. They are not afraid of breaking bones, and they end up breaking your heart.
As the older Geeta and Babita, Mahavir Singh Phogat’s two talented daughters, Fatima Sana Sheikh and Sanya Malhotra are the blood and muscle of the beating heart at the core of Dangal. They inhabit their personas with an ease that can come only after months of physical and mental training.
The Haryanvi accent, lightly leavened to be understood by moviegoers everywhere; the suppleness and litheness required for the demanding physical exercise; and the toughness needed to go head to head and eyeball to eyeball against an actor of the calibre of Aamir Khan.
For, what starts out as a relationship of unequals — Aamir is the father who decides that if he can’t have a son, he will make wrestlers of his daughters — ends up as a far more complex dynamic.
Fatima’s Geeta has a mind of her own and an independent spirit, and in an outstanding scene, she is able to communicate everything a child feels towards an overbearing, disciplinarian parent —anger, frustration, sorrow, joy. Her brilliance makes her her father’s equal, pehelwan to pehelwan, and it is a thrilling thing to watch.Dangal is as much a work of art as it is a social statement as it is entertainment.
Sanya’s Babita is the quieter, more docile spirit, but both women are fierce and fearless in the way they go after their roles. Their hunger, vitality and uninhibitedness is a refreshing change from the stylised confines in which Hindi film heroines are expected to function.
The Haryanvi athlete who uses her sport as a way to break out of the restrictions society imposes on her is hardly a novelty — in life and onscreen (remember Dattu in Tanu Weds Manu Returns 2?). But it has never been played before with greater grace and more dignity than by these two almost newbies.
This is what young girls need to learn — be proud of your bodies, embrace sport, be fit, not because it makes you look good (it does, nothing beats the radiance of good health) but because it improves your endurance, mental toughness, and your ability to face challenges. Being a pehelwan can be a beautiful thing.
Dangal is as much a work of art as it is a social statement as it is entertainment. Like Aamir Khan himself, it is both generous and good-spirited. When the national anthem plays during the movie, it does not require a Supreme Court diktat to get everyone in the audience on their feet with tears streaming down their faces.
When a Muslim butcher’s daughter gets prasad for Geeta-didi to perform well at the Commonwealth Games, it does not require a secular party’s mandate to make us acknowledge that moment. And when a fat official devours Mahavir Singh’s laddoos but refuses to support his cause — buying wrestling mats for his daughters — it does not need you to know the pathetic state of sport in India to feel the rage.
The movie, for all its emotion, is surprisingly funny. The younger Geeta and Babita, played by Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar, have a wonderful deadpan delivery of lines which livens up proceedings, especially through their endless running, stretching and bending exercises.
Almost every custom that holds women back in Haryana (and indeed in most other states) is included in the film, but not in a heavy-handed way. Child marriage, female foeticide, poor diets, “appropriate” clothing. Nothing stands in the way of what one song describes aptly as “knicker aur T-shirt pehenkar aaya cyclone”.
With their carefree gait (a trait not often seen on women in Hindi cinema, where they usually stand with their heads tilted, breasts out, stomachs in, and butts out) and their direct gaze (again, Hindi cinema women are urged to cast their eyes down in order to look bashful), the girls run through the opposition with a smile and a laugh. Dangal jeetne se pehle, darr se jeetna padta hai, says Aamir Khan’s Mahavir Singh. It works as a motto for life as much as for sport.
The film also puts fathers in the picture. We’ve seen a lot of mothers who sacrifice for their children. But here is Mahavir "Father India" Singh, giving up his job when he is not granted two months off his job to train his daughter for the National Games (if you’d asked for leave for your daughter’s marriage, I would have considered it, says his boss), taking off for Patiala for six months to help his daughter for the Commonwealth Games, and enduring the slings and arrows of his village for making them fight with boys. “Medalists ped par nahin ugte, unhe banana padta hai,’’ he says, and he does.
There is quite a bit of flag-waving feminism here — choriyan choron se kam nahin, chuklhe chauke, byaah, bachne paalne ke liye nahin banayi gayi hain —and much of it is done by Aamir’s Mahavir Singh.
There has been some criticism of this “appropriation” of the feminist cause by Amitabh Bachchan in Pink and Shahrukh Khan in Dear Zindagi. Does it matter where support for the cause is coming from? As long as it is? It’s as Aamir’s Mahavir says in the film: Gold to gold hota hai, chora ho ya chori.
A joyous, innately humane film that uplifts you, whirls you in the air, and then places you gently back on the ground, lighter in soul and in spirit.