The genre of sports movies is more trope-laden than most. The come-back-from-behind victory at the end. Adversity. Perseverance. The overcoming of personal demons. The obtaining of redemption either through one’s victory or through one’s wards. A training montage to robust background music. Dangal, inspired by wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat and his Commonwealth-medal-winning daughters, ticks almost all those boxes, with excellent performances from the ever-reliable Aamir Khan and the actresses who play Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat as adults, Fatima Sana Seikh and Sanya Malhotra, and those that play them as children, Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar, suitably rousing music, some excellently choreographed wrestling sequences, and the cinematic scaffolding needed to hold it all together, taut and flabless, for two and a half hours.
And yet, Dangal, is at its weakest when it is just a sports film.
Because wrapped inside Dangal’s sports-movie tropes is a narrative that transcends the limitations of the genre, to touch one of the fundamental conflicts of the human condition.
That between the parent and the child, of what the parent wants the child to be and what the child is.
When that conflict comes to the fore pushing the sports movie to the back, Dangal soars.
Mahavir Singh Phogat is the typical Indian parent, trying to vicariously attain his own failed dream through his children. The only thing not typical about him are his methods, extreme, even by the tiger standards of pre-2000s parenthood (according to Geeta and Babita, the real people, the film shows barely half of what they endured growing up). Forced to cut her hair short as a schoolgirl, not eat junk food or watch movies, or dance at weddings, Geeta Phogat discovers, at the National Sports Academy, not just liberation from her father’s curfew hours, but a new life, one that allows her to be a sportsperson as well as a normal young girl.
This leads to rebellion.
The best part of Dangal for me is not the climactic fights, which were very sports-movie, but the fight Geeta Phogat has with her old man, half-way through the film, a battle between the new techniques taught at the National Sports Academy and those her father stands by. It is bare-knuckles, fierce, and dramatic, where rebellious daughter is not only asserting her individuality but also trying to establish her superiority over someone who to her is larger-than-life, and for anyone who has ever felt the need to prove to their parents that he is better than they are, I know I have, this is about as much an intense dramatization of that struggle that one can hope to see, and as a father who also wants his daughter to achieve what he could not, this is about as much an intense dramatization of the struggle that I shall see in the future.
And this is precisely where Dangal not just hits the spot, but vaults you over its shoulder onto the mat.
Which brings me to my main gripe. Instead of showing the NSA coach as a cardboard villain, slimy and toady, Dangal’s core conflict could added a texture if it had showed the coach as someone whose methods and techniques are merely different from that of Mahavir Phogat’s, but not inherently wrong. However if Dangal misses a trick here, it gets most everything else right, making it arguably the best Hindi movie this year.
A point to be made, not so much about Dangal as a movie, but Dangal as a message. Which as we know in any Aamir Khan movie is a big thing. Many have pointed out that how Dangal’s glorification of obsessive parenthood runs counter to Aamir Khan’s messaging of 3 Idiots. Without getting into a deep discussion of whether Aamir Khan, as an artist, is even obliged to be consistent in his messaging across movies, the point is given the regressive mores of the society to which Mahavir Phogat belongs, where girls are born to cook, clean, marry and bear babies, it would take only this kind of parental extremism, this kind of autocratic obsession, to steamroll over all obstacles, and so while it maybe justified to cringe at his methods, there is no way Mahavir Phogat could have been a sensitive Facebook parent, given where he was born, and break the barriers that he did. The larger legacy of Phogat trumps his methods of how he achieved that and it is that legacy which is the message of Dangal, not so much the parenting.
And while cynics like me may scoff at the Aesop-fablization of cinema, messaging through popular entertainment is, undeniably, a powerful tool in changing societal attitudes, and Dangal, even if we forget everything else, works spectacularly in this respect, in addition to strengthening, after a controversial last year, the Aamir Khan brand of “meaningful entertainment”.
Oh sir, we promise to be tolerant, if you keep helming projects like this.