Dangal: Touching the mat, with wit and grace

Sonali Ghosh Sen

Of course, the Aamir magic gilds Dangal; but the inspiring story of the Phogats also holds its own

Dangal is a movie about a father’s dream in a small Haryana village of getting his daughters to win gold medals in international wrestling arenae. It is based on the true story of Mahavir Singh Phogat and his unrelenting spirit which saw his daughters succeed and be the best …in wrestling. Yes, the very sport of muscled men in loincloths wrestling it out in dust-soaked akharas.

Sport biopics can inspire and motivate, can build up to a heroic grandiosity, gilding the sportsmen into mythical beings, but Dangal manages to remain intimate rather than simply showboating the sport or the sportsperson’s feats. It is a film about dreams and desires, about ambition and awards. But it is also the story of a father and his girls, about strength of will and a clash of wills. About relationships toughened and strained through years of training.

The screenplay manages to sneak in a rare balance of entertainment and humour, in a film about a tough sport. Most of it is narrated through the eyes of the sutradhar, Omkar (Aparshakti Kurana), Phogat’s nephew. It’s this third person narration that lets the audience enjoy distance, yet empathise with a man with a thwarted dream who will live vicariously through his daughters’ achievements. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality in the narrative in the way Mahavir’s (Aamir Khan’s) desire for a boy to carry on his legacy in wrestling results in failure every time his wife delivers a girl, and in his discovery that his daughters can beat the boys at their own game. What could have been maudlin and melodramatic is kept sprightly and sparkling, thanks to the wit and repartee in the script.

Amitabh Bhattacharya’s lyrics and Pritam’s music may not possess the soaring beauty of a Vangelis soundtrack in Chariots of Fire, but the earthy and rustic tones of “Haanikarak Bapu” and “Dhaakad” carry us through the training of the two youngsters as they are initiated into the sport.  The songs soften the rain of blood, sweat and tears that it takes to build a true sports star.

There are  wrestling scenes aplenty in the film, but what lingers on are the small moments-when you hear the snip of the scissors as a girl’s long hair is cut short, the forbidden pleasure of eating a golgappa, or tears over a phone which silently communicate forgiveness when words can’t. A visit to a video theatre which plays porn films also contains a quixotic surprise, as does an impromptu office wrestling scene played to the commentary of an international wrestling tournament. The editing and cinematography keep pace with the humour and emotions, playing gently, letting feelings simmer before they boil over.

There is a tongue-in-cheek quality in the narrative in the way Mahavir’s (Aamir Khan’s) desire for a boy to carry on his legacy in wrestling results in failure every time his wife delivers a girl, and in his discovery that his daughters can beat the boys at their own game. What could have been maudlin and melodramatic is kept sprightly and sparkling, thanks to the wit and repartee in
the script

An Aamir Khan film has become synonymous with good performances and this one doesn’t disappoint. Aamir at 90 kilos, not only  physically resembles the stocky ex-wrestler, but his mannerisms and body language perfectly suit the character of a stubborn Jat who will not let go of his obsession or his tough love for his daughters. The daughters are also cast brilliantly and both Fatima Sana Sheikh as Gita and Sanya Malhotra as Babita are equal rather than being in the shadow of a superstar. The girls, including their younger avatars, underwent strenuous training to be wrestlers and the wrestling matches in the film are richer for that. They feel raw, real, and visceral, with each thud on the mat echoing in the audience’s mind.

But lest we forget that this is a mainstream blockbuster, the formulaic tropes do creep in after the interval. Solutions to many problems seem too pat; for instance, a child bride advising the Phogat girls about where their life would be without wrestling seems to be playing to the gallery. Even the core message of gender equality seems to be gently doled out in little spoon-feeding measures by producers Disney to appeal to the larger audience. Though the stubborn Mahavir fights misogyny and patriarchy in a state and sport that glorifies masculinity, the thought that does cross one’s mind is, is he doing it for his dream or his daughters? After all, this is an old-fashioned man, with old-fashioned values, and the pertinent questions that his wife (Sakshi Tanwar) does raise when he introduces his daughters to the sport are brushed aside impatiently by both him and the director. It is his goal, his ambition which the daughters follow obediently, so is he marrying the girls to the sport, instead of home and hearth, as the other fathers are doing? It is only in the cathartic fight between him and Gita that you get some of the answers, but not all.

What makes Dangal special is that it does not turn humans into heroes, but shows that even heroes are human and flawed fathers even more. It is a film in which you relate to every character on the screen, where you laugh and cry, and fall in love with the Phogat family. It’s a movie that is not just good storytelling, but teaches you about winning against the odds – whether in sport, in life, against the system, or even against being called the weaker sex. It’s a movie that touches your heart as not many movies in 2016 have done, and for that, it’s a must-watch.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2016 - JANUARY 2017