A national level wrestler forced to forego his dream becomes obsessed with training his daughters to accomplish what he couldn’t – winning gold for the country.
Dangal is a fine film that works on two levels. It’s the kind of inspiring sports movie that gainfully employs all the tropes of the genre to deliver a rousing experience for the viewer. It also makes a strong feminist statement about girls being just as good as boys (if not better) in what has traditionally been the stomping ground of men.
That predominantly male bastion extends not only to the contact sport in question, but also to Haryana where this true story is set; a culture so steeped in patriarchy that neighbors volunteer helpful tips towards producing a male heir to parents who’ve birthed multiple daughters.
The film is interested in the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, former wrestler and father of four girls from a small village named Belali, who coached his eldest daughters Geeta and Babita towards triumph on the world stage. Aamir Khan, grizzled, potbellied, and seldom cracking a smile, practically disappears into the character of Mahavir, a hard taskmaster who puts the girls through the wringer, ignoring their protests and those of his wife (Sakshi Tanwar).
Mahavir is in equal parts determined and unmistakably selfish, practically robbing the girls of their childhood, denying them normal pleasures in his obsession with discipline and his quest for excellence. It’s a tricky area to explore and a braver film might have gone down that road, but given that this is practically a biopic, the script steers clear of raising uncomfortable questions. What we get is one line, late in the film, where Mahavir acknowledges that the only fault of his daughters is that their father is a madman.
Co-written and directed by Nitesh Tiwari, Dangal scores big on authenticity. The rigorous training the girls are put through, the sniggering from a chauvinistic society, the clashes with sports authorities, and the thrilling, nail-biting bouts all ring true without a hint of artifice. There are layers too, if you seek them. One of the best bits in the film is a scene in which Mahavir and Geeta wrestle. On the face of it, it’s just that – father vs daughter. But simmering beneath the surface is so much more.
It’s these layers, tucked away but easily sought, that separate Dangal from your standard sports movie. The script digs deep to give us genuinely affecting moments like Geeta’s discovery of her own feminity, and her first brush with boys outside the akhada, not to mention her sheer amazement over the effect a romantic Hindi film can have on a hostelful of girls.
Very often I find my fellow critics say when they’ve loved a film immensely that they’re willing to overlook its occasional bumps. I am too, but I’ve discovered that with near-perfect films, the smallest flaws stick out like a sore thumb and nag me endlessly. The same is true here. I couldn’t get over the shoddy characterization of the National Sports Academy coach (played by a grossly underutilized Girish Kulkarni) who is portrayed as a one-note villain. I also couldn’t for the life of me buy into a twist in the film’s final act which came off as completely unconvincing. And don’t even get me started about the shrewd manner in which they tug – no wait, milk – our patriotic sentiments by throwing in the National Anthem in the end.
But frankly, Dangal succeeds despite these missteps, and a big reason for that are the performances. Tiwari, who previously co-directed Chillar Party and helmed Bhootnath Returns, once again draws winning, spirited performances from his younger actors, in this case from Suhani Bhatnagar and particularly Zaira Wasim who play the younger incarnations of Babita and Geeta respectively.
A word here also for Ritwik Sahore who plays their cousin Omkar, and the source of much amusement in the film, courtesy his role as a reluctant sparring partner for the girls in their growing up years. Aparshakti Khurrana plays the older Omkar, and he’s terrific too, bringing humor in unlikely places.
Sakshi Tanwar as Mahavir’s wife, and Sanya Malhotra as the older Babita are well cast and look their parts to the T. A chunk of the heavy lifting is taken care of by Fatima Sana Shaikh, who plays the older Geeta with just the right balance of youthful innocence and steely grit. Your heart goes out to Geeta, and her conflict is entirely palpable when she must choose what approach to take when she reaches the Commonwealth Games.
But at the heart of the film is an incredible performance by Aamir Khan, who doesn’t just play Mahavir he becomes him. There isn’t a hint of vanity in Aamir’s portrayal of this overweight, ageing man, and you understand what drives him and you forgive him his methods. Underneath the tough exterior, Aamir imbues Mahavir with a tenderness that occasionally slips through.
Dangal is not a perfect film, but then few films are. It’s overlong at 2 hours and 41 minutes, and it’s both simple and simplistic in places. But it’s a solid and satisfying watch, a well crafted look at what went into the creation of two sporting champions. It’s a film that makes the heart swell…when it isn’t pounding from all the excitement of the bouts. I’m going with four out of five.