Dangal: Almost a Great Film

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I have a friend who’s a mixed martial arts fighter who talks about nothing but fighting. Mixed martial arts is his life, although he has a day job. He has two kids he’s been training since they were little. They love training with their dad, but I often wonder if he’s projecting his own ambitions on his children.

I couldn’t help but think of that friend of mine while watching Dangal (Wrestler). Because at the very heart of the film is the same question. Whether the father is living out his own dream by proxy.

The story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, a real-life ex-wrestler who managed to overcome societal barriers to train his two daughters to become international wrestling champions, makes for an inspiring sports movie, and one cannot really go wrong with sports movies. But Dangal takes it a step further by being a critique of both the Indian government’s lack of support for the country’s sports talents and Indian society’s male-dominated perspective. It’s the latter that forms the backbone of the movie.

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And like all Aamir Khan’s movies, Dangal is endlessly entertaining, with a lot of humour and lighthearted moments amid the heavy undertones. The film has a great rhythm and every element is so well-placed that it’s hard to fault it technically. Aamir seems to make it his mission these days to imbue every one of his movies with issues that matter. When he does it well, like his self-directed Taare Zameen Par (2007), the result is beautiful, heartfelt and feels very personal. He’s also prone to dishing out social commentaries in fast-food fashion, like in the equally breathlessly-entertaining PK (2014).

In Dangal, the issue tackled is the position of women in Indian society, whether they are meant to be in the kitchen and to serve the patriarch as tradition requires, or whether they can or should be more. And this is where problems set in, making it difficult to elevate Dangal to among the top best films this year.

The intention here is noble. After all, this is Aamir Khan, the man who has taken a lot of flak for his uncompromising views on various issues he sees plaguing his country, sometimes even at the risk of his own reputation and well-being. There’s definitely no question about his sincerity here.

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There’s also no question as to Mahavir’s motivation – he made a tough decision years ago to leave wrestling and take on a desk job because of his financial difficulties. This single, life-changing event is the driving force behind his determination to see his daughters win a gold medal for the country, a mix of personal and nationalistic ambitions. It would then be easy to see that his daughters are the proxies for his own dreams.

But just as we get to this point, the film throws us a curve. No spoilers here, but we’re told Mahavir’s motivation isn’t solely what we thought it was. It seems he has much more forward-looking ideas for his daughters and training them in wrestling is his way of breaking them out of the traditional mould in which society wants to trap them. But does he, really?

The problem here is, there’s not much about Mahavir that we can see, that strengthens the idea of him being someone who doesn’t believe in the traditional view of women. His wife still spends much of her time in the kitchen, and serves her husband like any other traditional spouse. We do see him involved in his younger daughters’ education, but that’s about it. Again, there is no doubt the intention of the film is noble, but the execution here is weak, so much so the politics and ideology become muddled.

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In the end, what comes across stronger is the idea of him wanting to achieve his dreams through his children, selfish as it may seem, more than the idea of him using wrestling as a means of achieving more than what society would dictate for his daughters. The latter feels more like a by-product, a side-effect.

And it’s ironic that a film that seeks to create awareness of feminism bases so much of its story on patriarchal dominance and control. Already some among the Malaysian audiences are claiming the film proves that the male parent is always right, and whenever a child deviates from the parent or so much as seek independence, she will falter badly. That again, proves the weakness in execution of Dangal’s otherwise noble intentions. Whatever happened to a woman’s right to choose?

All throughout the film, the right path is strictly the father’s. No matter if the daughter is interested in, say, painting her nails or growing her hair or boys, she absolutely cannot part ways with her father’s wishes. This is what makes the film difficult – the teeter-tottering, jumbled, addled ideas and ideals that don’t seem to add up to the film’s more upright aims.

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But there’s no confusion when it comes to Dangal’s entertainment quotient, which is very high. Even with all these problems, Dangal is a film that’s hard not to like. It seems almost effortless in getting us involved in the girls’ struggles, so much so the audience I saw it with were clapping and cheering during the matches in the final third of the film, as if they were at a real wrestling match. It was quite amazing to witness. Credit must go to Nitesh Tiwari and his sure and deft hand in the direction. Equally, Pritam’s songs and music are among the funkiest tunes ever committed to film.

Even so, the Karate Kid-like finale seems somehow deflated and somewhat predictable after so much was invested in getting us to expect a big, emotional wallop at the end. It’s also not helped by what I call an “Ip Man 2 moment”, when the foreigners were made to be remorselessly and cartoonishly evil.

All this, for me, causes the film to just miss the top rungs of the ladder, even though Dangal and the Suriya starrer 24 are the two most fun and entertaining films from India that I’ve seen this year.

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