“Dangal”… Terrific performances elevate a drama that’s more solid than spectacular

Posted on December 22, 2016

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Spoilers ahead…

Nitesh Tiwari’s based-on-real-events drama, Dangal, is exactly what the trailer promised. It was a simple trailer. This is a simple film. Often, a simplistic film. One wrestling match, in a flashback, is all we’re given as evidence of Mahavir Singh Phogat’s (Aamir Khan) burning passion for the sport. He hopes for a male child that will fulfil his dream of winning a gold medal for the nation, but he ends up with four girls. As is customary in villages (this one is Balali, Haryana), they are taught to be girls, to cook, to clean – until, one day, Mahavir realises that Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) have beaten up a local boy who called them names. One look at the boy, one demonstration by the girls about how they beat up the boy – that’s all we get as the reason for Mahavir’s decision to train these girls as wrestlers.

Geeta and Babita resent this training, resent their father – until, one day, they attend a wedding and the young bride says that their father at least wants to make something of them, unlike hers, who just wants to marry her off. One heartfelt speech – that’s enough to change the girls’ minds. They fall fully in line with their father’s vision. One instance of Geeta triumphing over her cousin Omkar (who, as a grown-up, is played by Aparshakti Khurrana) – and the next day, Mahavir hauls her off to Rohtak, to compete against boys in a local championship. Much later, Mahavir and Geeta have a falling out – he used to train her; now, she’s at the National Sports Academy, being trained in a very different style by a hotshot coach (Girish Kulkarni, as a cartoonishly one-note “villain”). Mahavir’s wife Daya (Sakshi Tanwar, deploying an impressive array of meaningful glances that make dialogue practically unnecessary) pleads with him to call Geeta. The words are barely out of her mouth and the phone rings. It’s Geeta. One call. Father and daughter are back together.

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The events in Dangal exist on the surface. Geeta forsakes her father’s advice and she loses. She listens to him, she wins. The narrative is content being a series of broad bullet points rather than a textured essay.  Things happen. We’re just meant to accept them, without too much why-ing and how-come-ing. My favourite scene came when Mahavir and Geeta wrestle. Ostensibly, she’s fighting him, he’s fighting her. But it’s much more. He’s fighting against his loss of control over her, her affiliation to a new coach, his gold-for-India dream that’s slipping away. She’s fighting against a lifetime of repression, a childhood she wasn’t allowed to have, a man who foisted his dreams on her. The wrestling moves feel amazingly authentic – I’ve never really watched the sport, but this film made me a fan; so excitingly are the bouts choreographed – but the psychological undertones are really why the scene crackles. No other episode comes close.

I think this is intentional. Mahavir Singh Phogat is such a complex character (and to think he’s not from fiction!) that his life may have needed to be “mainstreamed” – perhaps even excessively so – in order to make a movie with wide appeal. As opposed to Qissa, the art-house release that was about a similar father (Irrfan Khan), who decided to treat his daughter like a son. Mahavir appears equally bonkers. Like Qissa’s protagonist, he doesn’t blame his wife for delivering girls, but he is unable to shake off his monomania and he puts the girls through hell. He may not be literally imagining they are boys, like Irrfan did, but he makes them chop off their tresses and when they say they cannot run in salwar kameez-es, he makes them wear boy clothes.

Boxing and wrestling films (also see this year’s Saala Khadoos/ Irudhi Suttru) have always zoomed in on The Gruff Coach, but the trainees are usually adults and they seem to have made the choice to stick with the gruffness, to stick it out. We’re talking about children here. Aamir is essentially playing an anti-hero, a madman. When his daughters are about to be expelled from the training academy, he admits, “Inki bas ek hi galati hai ki inka baap baawla hai.” It’s strange that a man who recognises the unfairness of not being granted leave to train his daughter (the manager says he’d have sanctioned leave had it been the daughter’s wedding) is unable to see that he’s doing what other men around him are doing – he’s “marrying his daughter off,” at a very young age, to a sport. Aamir brings out these contradictions beautifully – this is one of his finest performances. He does not hold back. He does not play to the audience – he barely cracks a smile. He does not try to make himself likeable one bit.

The film does this instead. It finds endlessly inventive ways to “cutify” the character, the proceedings. It gives Mahavir this amusing quirk of doing things that we learn about only at the last minute – things that involve gol gappa-s and soft-porn theatres. The irresistible songs – written by Amitabh Bhattacharya, tuned by Pritam – make you laugh out loud. Take Hanikarak bapu. What would have been a generic training-montage number in another sports film is transformed into a character-delineating litany of complaints. (Toffee churan khel khilone / Kulche naan paratha / Keh gaye hain tata / Jab se bapu tune daanta.) Scene after scene is ripe with folksy flavour, like when commentary from an Olympics match on TV is used to commentate on an impromptu bout of wrestling in a small office, or when the entire village gathers, with breathless anticipation, to find out if Mahavir’s latest is a girl or boy.

The far-out eccentricity of the central character – and the way the screenplay handles this – makes us forgive a lot of the film’s more obvious touches. Like a redundant voiceover (even if the lines are steeped in colour). Like the commentator, who, during a crucial match, declares that even destiny doesn’t want Geeta to win. (Is there any doubt she will, especially after a wittle girl from her village comes bearing prasad?) But I wish some of the ickier aspects of the real-life story had been explored. For instance, wrestling isn’t just a sport. It’s a contact sport, with hands and legs flying everywhere. What are the repercussions, in an ultra-conservative milieu, when a girl locks herself in these positions with a boy? Even if this boy is a cousin.

Dangal is the rare Hindi film where the ups and downs of relationship drama play out not between lovers but sisters and brothers, fathers and daughters. (Sanya Malhotra plays the grown-up Babita, and like the rest of the cast, she is pitch perfect.) Even the sole “love song” (Gilehriyan) centres on Geeta (Fatima Sana Shaikh), after she escapes her father’s clutches. At the sporting academy, she no longer has to follow his rules. She learns what it is to grow her hair and paint her nails and crush on Shah Rukh Khan in DDLJ. The soft tune plays like a romantic number – she’s falling in love with what it’s like to be a girly girl.

Finally, the inevitable Sultan comparison – after all, it isn’t every year that you get two superstars in nearly three-hour son-of-the-soil dramas with women wrestlers. Both films feature characters painted in grey shades, characters who give up wrestling, characters who are seen in various degrees of fitness. (Aamir’s paunch is a sight to behold.) But there’s an essential difference. Sultan is the more internal film, about conquering one’s own demons. Dangal depicts an external struggle. Will Mahavir’s dream come true? There’s no suspense there, of course, and you wish a film with this predictable an arc had been shorter. But it’s a great story. It needed to be told. And it needed to be told this way, this very Indian way, with the most resonant use of a nationalistic song (the anthem) since the echo of Saare jahaan se achcha over the meeting of the brothers in Deewar. Mahavir’s dream wasn’t just about winning the gold. It was about winning the gold for a nation that doesn’t invest enough in its non-cricketing sporting stars, doesn’t reward them enough. Even without a Supreme Court injunction, you feel like saluting.

KEY:

  • dangal = wrestling; struggle
  • Qissa = see here
  • Saala Khadoos/ Irudhi Suttru = see here
  • Inki bas ek hi galati hai ki inka baap baawla hai = Their only fault is that their father is a madman.
  • gol gappa-s = see here
  • prasad = see here
  • Sultan = see here

Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi