It’s not often that the opening credits of a Bollywood film make you smile. Quite early in Dangal, when the names of different production members come on screen, at one point, we see the credit “Wrestling Coordinator”. The name under it is “Kripa Shankar Bishnoi”, followed by “Arjuna Award” in brackets. Bishnoi, a coach of the Indian women’s wrestling team, trained Aamir Khan and other actors for the film. It’s heartening to know that Dangal—a film centered on wrestling, detailing the struggles of Indian wrestlers—cares about a real-life wrestler, too, taking an extra step to highlight his achievement. This gesture’s all the more important, because in a country like India, recognition in a sport, other than cricket, is hard to come.
Dangal‘s initial segment is often alert to, and cares about, the world it’s set in, achieving much by trying little. When Mahavir Singh Phogat (Khan), a famed wrestler, expecting his second child to be a boy, gets to know that his wife’s given birth to a girl, his friend says, “Koi na (it’s okay)”—a more gentle way of saying “shit happens”. It’s a blink-and-miss moment in the film, but, at the same time, a much-needed and quiet indictment of patriarchy. When Mahavir’s girls, Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar), wear shorts for the first time, so that they can jog easily, they look visibly embarrassed, worried whether their knees are visible. When Mahavir’s wife (Sakshi Tanwar) apologises to him for not giving birth to a son, he says, “Isme teri galti thodi na hai (it’s not your fault).” This scene, too, materializing through impressive economy, is an important moment in the film, because it talks about a certain kind of Indian man, one who isn’t a misogynist, but, deeply entrenched in notions of patriarchy, hasn’t come to terms with gender equality, either.
And given Mahavir’s played by Khan, a Bollywood star, it’s commendable that he isn’t virtuous by default. Even his ultimate realisation—that girls are no different than boys—seems natural, for it’s rooted in personal desire: “A gold is a gold. How does it matter whether it comes from a girl or a boy?” It’s also impressive that the film doesn’t try to make Mahavir likeable. He doesn’t care about niceties, doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s a hard taskmaster, subjecting his girls, often against their will, to grueling training, not listening to what they want, taking every measure to ensure they don’t get distracted—even if that means getting their hair chopped, dragging them from a wedding celebration, rebuking them constantly.
A coach-mentor relationship is tricky and twisted, often shrouded by grey clouds. The lines between tough-love and exploitation blur so quickly and easily that it’s difficult to separate one from the other. It’s quite apparent that Geeta and Babita, at least early on, don’t care about wrestling. They would much rather prefer a normal childhood. Is it fair, then, to sacrifice personal needs over professional gains, for a larger good—in this case, that elusive medal for the country? I’m not sure I’ve an answer to that. And stories of childhoods being moulded to suit the whims of hotheaded fathers (or mentors) are way too common. For instance, Andre Agassi, while still in his crib, had ping-pong paddles taped to his wrists, by his father, egging him on to hit a mobile of tennis balls above his head. By the time Agassi turned six, his father was forcing him to hit 2,500 tennis balls a day. Agassi grew up hating tennis. The world got a great tennis player, but a young man didn’t get to choose his own life. Such discomfiting life situations don’t lend themselves to easy answers, and Nitesh Tiwari, Dangal’s director, isn’t looking for one. In fact, these portions in Dangal—Mahavir training his daughters—are more about how life is lived, as opposed to how it should be, how one lack of choice can be better than the other. There’s very little sermonizing here, and, as a result, the first half of Dangal—brought together by sharp writing, impressive acting, smart editing and cinematography (especially the scenes in wrestling rings)—makes for a satisfying watch.
Its second half, though, is a different story altogether.
But before understanding what doesn’t work in Dangal’s second half, and why, it’s important to understand the DNA of an Aamir Khan production. Unlike his contemporaries Shahrukh and Salman—where the former is charming, owning a scene just by a smile or a wink; and the latter exuding a brute masculine energy, speaking the language of street toughies—Khan is relatively more restrained, his choices more studied, more cerebral. He’s also got a knack for interesting, complex subjects—be it Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots, PK, or Dangal. These films aren’t fluffy; they see the world in a certain way, want to make sense of it, want to comment on it. Unlike Shahrukh and Salman, Khan’s also less willing to be a hero. An 8-year-old kid (Ishaan), not Khan, was the centre of the story in Taare Zameen Par; he shared screen time with two other actors in 3 Idiots; Dangal’s story is hinged on Geeta’s quest for gold.
But, then, Khan can’t quit being himself; he can’t quit being a hero. The only difference is, unlike Shahrukh and Salman, he’s subtle about it, becoming a hero not through a protagonist, but through a peripheral character. By introducing a ‘villain’, another side character, whom he defeats—by either direct or indirect means. It’s one character annihilating the other, which, not appearing very obvious on the surface, is often misconstrued as intelligent cinema. But the tropes remain the same. It’s the world of heroes and villains; it’s just that they’re packaged differently. Besides, these films often contradict themselves, and are—in contrary to how they are positioned—devoid of complexities, reinforcing, not challenging, our views.
Take Taare Zameen Par for instance. It’s not enough that the film ends on a note with the shot of Ishaan painting blissfully, having finally found his solace. But, in a bid to reach a crowd-pleasing climax, we need to be shown that he, aided by Khan’s character, has also won the competition; that he’s up against a callous father, the film’s villain, who’s reformed by Khan. For a standalone film, these quibbles are okay, for worse choices have been made in Bollywood movies to make them dramatically appealing. And Taare Zameen Par is by no means shoddy; it was an important film for its time and, for the most part, enjoyable, but it does exhibit a pattern that, over the years, has become a hallmark of Khan’s films.
Consider 3 Idiots’s climax. It’s not enough that Khan’s character (Rancho), at the end of the film, is content with what he loves doing the most (teaching). We’ve to be shown that he—having become a scientist, garnering more than 1,000 patents—is more ‘successful’ than Chatur, a former nerdy classmate, a character the film often derides. 3 Idiots, a film centered on following one’s calling, ends on a note that ironically celebrates Indian middle class’s notions of success—that being successful means getting ahead of others, as opposed to being satisfied by one’s own choices. Ditto PK, where a godman, much like Chatur’s character in 3 Idiots, is someone we can easily point fingers, and laugh, at.
Something similar happens in Dangal. At one point, Geeta (Fatima Sana Shaikh), leaving her village, signs up for the National Sports Academy to prepare for international games. She finds a coach (Girish Kulkarni) there who, unlike Mahavir, doesn’t understand her natural instincts. He keeps telling her to defend, while she’s more comfortable attacking. And much like other side characters in Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots or PK, the film reduces him to a caricature, an obvious buffoon, who simply exists because Khan can become a hero. But that’s not the only troubling bit in the film.
A scene after the interval says a thing or two about what’s actually happening in Dangal. Here, Mahavir and Geeta are locked in a fight, where the latter, having learnt a new technique from her coach, is trying to prove how it’s better than the one Mahavir taught her. As they begin wrestling, Geeta starts dominating Mahavir and, in the end, defeats him—not because, as the scene shows, she’s more skillful, but because her father’s become frail with age. The film then devotes a substantial amount of runtime in showing how Mahavir was right all along. Dangal’s fixated on convincing us that Mahavir can never be wrong, that the problem’s always with Geeta. It’s a strange implication, one underscored scene after scene, that Geeta is nothing without her father, a man.
It’s surprising, and rather unfortunate, that a film like Dangal, which sees itself as feminist, gives so little space to Geeta to be on her own—whether personally or professionally. There’s a wonderful brief segment in the film where she is by herself and her friends, discovering the joys of growing up. She goes to malls to buy clothes; she watches films; she sees a guy and smiles. But the film doesn’t embrace these as desires, rather dismisses them as distractions. If she’s to win that gold, Dangal implies, she has to be more masculine: cut her hair short, not care about her looks, go back to her father. It needn’t have been this way or that, and I expected Dangal to be smarter than this, to understand the fluidity of gender.
Sure, Dangal is ultimately a fictional film, and it can use any plot device to tell a credible and entertaining story, but what can also not be ignored that it’s a certain kind of film—one that knows what it wants to be about, gender equality in this case. And so when it falters on that front, looks unsure of what it’s saying, you feel a bit underwhelmed.
And there’s more. Dangal, for the major part of its second half, is repetitive and bloated, showing, scene after scene, traits of characters that were established long back, offering little to surprise us and itself. It also uses some of the most tired clichés of sports films, needlessly trying to inject drama in a story that should have unfolded more naturally, more life-like. In fact, that is Dangal’s major undoing—that it’s not quite sure of the kind of film it wants to be. Dangal’s last 30 minutes are drunk on high drama, contradicting the film’s earlier tone and purpose.
Lagaan and Chak De! India, two simple melodramatic genre pieces, worked because they were internally and overall consistent. They didn’t punch above their weights, stuck to their stories and characters, giving us much to savour. Dangal, on the other hand, desperately wants to be meaningful; it wants to be both melodramatic and life-like; it wants to talk about both micro and macro—the dreams of ordinary citizens, the desire of a nation. And this has become a pattern of sorts, especially with Khan’s films, of late, where meaningful topical subjects are stripped off their complexities, where there’s much fixation on delivering a message as opposed to telling a story, where the theatrics of cinema get entangled with the bareness of life. Often, these films are acclaimed because they aren’t obviously formulaic, aren’t obviously shoddy—that they try to do something ‘different’. The failures of these films are all the more frustrating because they, at some level, show genuine promise. Dangal does, too—even its uneven second half has a few scenes that are affecting and keep you hooked, that make you hope that this film will rise above its new-found mediocrity. But it doesn’t. Dangal wants to have the best of both the worlds, but ends up being stranded in no man’s land.
Originally published in the Wire.