Dangal is available to stream on Netflix.
Dangal is not a film about wrestling, but about a man struggling to help his daughters break free from the shackles of society. Winning the gold medal for India in an International tournament is more than just a major sporting accomplishment. It is a symbol.
Before the finals, this father, Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan), tells his eldest daughter, Geeta, “Winning the gold medal would be a victory for every girl who is considered inferior to boys; who is forced into household chores; who is married off just to raise children.”
Mahavir Singh Phogat desperately wants to give birth to a boy. He believes his son would be able to achieve what he couldn’t during his days as an amateur wrestler – a gold medal for India in an international tournament. Unfortunately, Mahavir Singh’s firstborn is a female. And so the disappointed Mahavir goes around his village asking everyone, from temple priests to chatty old men, for tips on how to birth a male.
Some suggest special mantras, others tell him to control his urges and only have sex on Sundays. One lady even suggests feeding their cow sesame seeds. I’m surprised nobody told him to strip naked and do the Hokey Pokey. What’s interesting is the sudden shift in the score’s tone during this extended sequence, from soft and somber, to a comedic bounce. The director is poking fun at these ridiculous, baseless religious rituals.
Of course, these rituals don’t work – you can’t actually select the sex of your child, not without undergoing tedious medical procedures – and Mahavir and his wife give birth to another three girls. Mahavir loves his daughters very much, but there’s always a look of defeat plastered on his face. He knows that he has to let go of his dream.
That is until the day he receives complaints that his daughters, Geeta and Babita, have beaten up a couple of the neighbourhood boys. He apologises to his neighbour nonchalantly, but once they leave, his face lights up like a giant Christmas tree in the middle of Times Square (New York, not Jalan Imbi). This is where our story truly begins.
We know how this movie will end. It is based on a true story, after all. What’s exciting is the journey. Like how he’s willing to chop off his daughters’ hair against their will, as he feels it’s a distraction to their training. And how the entire neighbourhood treats the young girls, who are no more than 13 years old, like they’re pieces of meat, just because they’re running in shorts.
Many of the elderly men behave crudely towards these girls. During a local wrestling competition, one of the men laughs and says he hopes Geeta’s clothing tears. It’s disgusting. But it is an accurate reflection of our society.
It reminds me of the controversy surrounding Farah Ann a couple of years ago. In 2015, Farah Ann represented Malaysia in Gymnastics at the Singapore SEA Games, where she bagged six gold medals. But instead of hailing her as a national hero, many religious zealots (AKA dumb mafakas) went on to verbally bash Farah.
One cleric, who presumably has lower IQ points than a dead donkey said: “Gymnastics is not for Muslim women. It is clear that exposing one’s aurat and the shape of one’s body is haram.”
Yo dumbass! Just because you’re a sexist, horny, misogynistic piece of shit who can’t get a girlfriend to save your life, doesn’t mean women should dress a certain way. And if you want to be holier than thou, at the very least say the same thing to Sazali Samad, who regularly flexes his chiseled booty (which is awesome, btw) wearing nothing but a tiny G-string (also very awesome). #Nohomo
What director and co-writer Nitesh Tiwari does really well, is not writing these characters and the situations they find themselves in, black and white. Geeta and Babita are not happy with their dad’s decisions. They cry and beg their father when he gives them a haircut and they feel uncomfortable wearing shorts (how can they feel comfortable, if everyone is staring at them?).
In school, their friends laugh at them. Mahavir doesn’t give them a choice, which begs the question: What if the girls WANT to be regular teenage girls, with long hair and makeup? But I guess you don’t really know what you want when you’re a child.
One of the most uncomfortable moments of the film takes place during a wedding, in which we see all the adults celebrating, with booze, laddu and a fantastic song to accompany the scene. What we also see, but none of the characters seem to care about, is the teenage bride, not more than 14 years old, looking as if her life has just ended. In a manner of speaking, it has.
Recently, I praised the acting talents of young Jacob Tremblay – Room and Wonder. Here’s another child actor, who deserves an equal amount of praise. The first half of the film wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if it wasn’t for the tremendous range and charisma shown by Zaira Wasim, who plays young Geeta.
She, just like Tremblay understand the importance of subtlety; to know when to cry and when to hold back your tears. She’s incredible to watch. I can only imagine that it isn’t easy to direct child actors, which is why immense praise should be given to Nitesh Tiwari, as well. Zaira Wasim is even better in this year’s Secret Superstar, which I hope to review very soon.
The second half of the film focuses on a grown-up Geeta, this time portrayed wonderfully by Fatima Sana Shaikh, who is now a part of the National Sports Academy, training for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Here, Dangal continues to be about more than just wrestling.
Nitesh Tiwari takes the relationship between Geeta and Mahavir in interesting directions, exploring our protagonists’ egos. Mahavir is getting older, a shell of his former self. Ripped abs are replaced by a belly which clearly grew as he did. He’s not as strong as he was and it’s sad to see.
There is a powerful scene where Geeta calls home from the NSA. She hasn’t spoken to her dad in ages. There is a long pause. We look at Mahavir as he decides if he should pick up the phone. He does. He doesn’t say a word; his tears tell you everything you need to know. Watching that scene again yesterday made me wonder if Aamir Khan is the best actor working in India right now. Perhaps.
Dangal is the second film in what I’d like to call “The Aamir Khan Middle Finger to the Narrow-Minded Trilogy” (PK and Secret Superstar are the other two). Its biggest flaw – and it is a glaring, annoying flaw – happens during the climactic sequence, whereby an officer working at the stadium locks Mahavir up in a closet. It is, of course, an “evil scheme” by the “villainous” NSA women’s wrestling coach. What is this? Tom and Jerry? It is a ridiculous outlandish scene that sticks out like a sore thumb. Why is this B-movie, straight to DVD quality sequence in a film of this quality?
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