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Dangal Review: More Royal Rumble Than Wrestlemania

The biggest issue with filmmaker Nitesh Tiwari's film is that it plays safe, in sharp contrast to its sport and gender-empowering subjects

Rahul DesaiRahul Desai

December 23, 2016 | 02:12 AM

FC Rating

★★★★★
film-companion
aamir khan, apaarshakti khurrana, dangal, fatima sana shaikh, mukesh chhabra, nitesh tiwari, sakshi tanwar, sanya malhotra, rahul desai, anupama chopra, bollywood review-dangal, bollywood biopic, mahavir singh phogat, women\'s wrestling, haryana women, chachi 420

Director: Nitesh Tiwari

Cast: Aamir Khan, Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Aparshakti Khurrana

It’s perhaps no surprise that the stars of a film that thrives on aiming (loudly) for the stars are its youngest performers. Nitesh Tiwari, its maker, as well as his frequent collaborator and casting director Mukesh Chhabra, seem to have a knack with kids.

Tiwari’s first film, Chillar Party, which he co-directed with Vikas Bahl, pivoted on the dewy-eyed chemistry between a middle-class colony’s children and their favourite stray dog. We were introduced here to the freewheeling eyes of Master Irrfan, as the street-dwelling, empathy-inducing kiddie hero, Fatka.

In his second, Bhoothnath Returns, a film driven by the sweet idealism and preachy sentimentalism of the Rajkumar Hirani brand of cinema, little Parth Bhalerao (later seen in Avinash Arun’s Marathi-language Killa) outdid Amitabh Bachchan with an effortless tapori-act for the ages.

In Dangal, a dramatized biopic of ex-wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Aamir Khan) and his champion daughters, it’s the adolescents, Zaira Wasim (as a teenaged Geeta Kumari Phogat) and Suhani Bhatnagar (a pre-teen Babita Kumari Phogat), who define the first energetic hour of the sprawling 160-minute film.

For most of this part, there’s a rebellious, reluctant confusion writ large across their amusing faces; why are they being made to do “boy” things by a man who still expects to be fed before the ladies in the house? It isn’t evident here yet that the ill-fated second portion will revolve around only one of them, the older Geeta, while awkwardly reducing an equally fascinating Babita to a fist-pumping conscience-mirroring bystander.

Early on, they don’t know what to make of a deluded, selfish parent trying to complete his own dreams through them. Thankfully, Mahavir doesn’t come across as an alienated liberal in a Haryanvi village full of traditionalists.

Early on, they don’t know what to make of a deluded, selfish parent trying to complete his own dreams through them. Thankfully, Mahavir doesn’t come across as an alienated liberal in a Haryanvi village full of traditionalists. It only so happens that he must raise his girls differently to achieve a goal, which coincidentally involves them breaking the shackles of deep-rooted patriarchy. It’s interesting to see how he, by his own silent admission, isn’t sure of what he’s doing – like a man coming to terms with both, a greater calling, and a contradictory lifestyle.

There’s however such an obvious heaviness (not just physically), a perplexing inertia, about him (Aamir) throughout, almost like the other Khan in Sultan earlier this year – as if he is willing us to recognize Dangal as his one-film-in-two-years masterpiece.

The little ones are both sisterly to one another and daughterly to their scowling father, lending a tired-looking Khan the opportunity to communicate without really doing so. There’s however such an obvious heaviness (not just physically), a perplexing inertia, about him (Aamir) throughout, almost like the other Khan in Sultan earlier this year – as if he is willing us to recognize Dangal as his one-film-in-two-years masterpiece.

His performance is a little presumptuous, and a bit of a letdown, not least because of the way his one-dimensional character has been handled. Other than a vague throwback to his past, it’s unclear why he, too, like Sultan, forlornly drives a scooter to a government office to demonstrate an ‘everyman’ averageness.

Tiwari can’t quite control his penchant for spoon-feeding either. There’s the voiceover of the narrator, Mahavir’s ubiquitous nephew (both actors, young and old, are very perceptive), that insists on telling us what he is thinking, peppering this phase with clean textbook anecdotes. The film wants to be about the girls, but its design points to its only male.

At one point, we see a bitter Mahavir tearfully telling his wife (Sakshi Tanwar) that he can either be a father or a guru to them – a conflict that will define the emotional machinations of their adult lives too. This need to outline every tectorial shift in being is a mainstream one, but also one that keeps Dangal from aspiring for anything more than the occasional powerful moment. We’re not once given a chance to read between the lines, because the lines must be big, bold and accessible to everyone.

Another example is a strange scene that tides the 13-year-old girls over and convinces them of his nobility: their mournful classmate, whose wedding they miss training to attend, delivers an annoyingly self-aware sermon to them about the struggles of rural-Indian mindsets and her trapped destiny. Everyone starts to cry, during this very adult-ish, abrupt epiphany.

This feels a little unlikely coming from the mouth and mind of a child, and even more unlikely because it becomes the basis on which young Geeta and Babita decide to embrace the vision of their stubborn father.

The musical montages then begin, and the film takes flight during Geeta’s first (and superbly choreographed) akhada bouts with boys in Rohtak tournaments. Slowly but surely, Babita’s screen-time begins to fade. The investment viewers make into the double-trouble-ness of their effervescent rise is now forcibly halved.

A singular father-daughter story assumes precedence, making me wonder how Chak De! India would have felt if Kabir Khan had decided to mentor one of the sixteen girls more than the others. There were the more visible protagonist-types in that film too, but I couldn’t help but think that Tiwari may have missed a trick here.

Perhaps two different points of view, separate distinct perspectives in both halves, could have broken the age-old mold of conventional biopic narratives. When the film begins to intercut again between the simultaneous national and international exploits of the two girls, it’s hard not to imagine how Babita’s silver medal in the same Commonwealth championship (2010) has to have intrinsically shaped Geeta and Mahavir’s quest for gold.

The second half of Dangal, much of which transpires within the confines of the National Sports Academy and sports auditoriums, is fairly problematic.

The second half of Dangal, much of which transpires within the confines of the National Sports Academy and sports auditoriums, is fairly problematic. Much like the final portions of AirliftDishoomPink and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, a wave of unwarranted nationalism hampers its proceedings. It again suffers from a crippling single-mindedness, a tunnel-vision outlook where nobody and nothing but Geeta (now Fatima Sana Sheikh) and her attitude problems exist. She struggles to come of age without so much as acknowledging her immediate surroundings.

I didn’t have a problem with the strategic plot-propping inclusion of the national anthem, as much as Khan’s laughably purposeful face while it plays.

I didn’t have a problem with the strategic plot-propping inclusion of the national anthem, as much as Khan’s laughably purposeful face while it plays. Nothing about it seems fully organic, which generally encapsulates the tricky trend of real-life stories being brought to the screen triumphantly to spread ‘awareness’.

Perhaps, at a different time, ruled by a different government, we’d have been seeing a little less chest-beating and a little more nuance at the movies. The unimaginative commentary sounding out the exciting matches is part of this epidemic.

Ms. Shaikh does bring an intense physicality and a certain degree of flawed humaneness to her role. It helps that she isn’t as experienced as, say, Salman Khan, who resorted to lofty third-person referencing and arrogant declarations to similarly demonstrate the too-big-for-boots, downfall phase of professional athletes. Sheikh’s fightback is sincere, defined by a longing even she isn’t quite sure of.

But every well-constructed match sequence is quickly undone by the casting of a K-serial-ish antagonist: the evil-eyed vamp-ish NSA coach, played by a somewhat clueless Girish Kulkarni. His role, in which he doesn’t seem to have been given any written lines, is horribly hollow. Various versions of “What are you doing?” are relayed to Geeta in expressionless glory, while the accompanying background music stops short of an ominous ‘90s bad-man theme. Her final opponent, too, an Australian girl, is made to speak and sledge at a press conference as if she were the drawling villain of 103 Dalmatians.

Dangal is packaged in a way that makes it hard not to root for its parts. After all, everyone likes the friendly, non-neighbourhood underdog shining through. As a whole, though, it is treated with an aura of immortality; you never actually identify its journey, its fierce individuality and complications.

Maybe my biggest issue with the film is that it plays safe, in sharp contrast to its sport and gender-empowering subjects: when was the last time wrestling was considered a safe career, both literally and figuratively?