Director: Nitesh Tiwari
Cast: Aamir Khan, Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Aparshakti Khurrana
Before you watch Dangal, you need to know that Haryana treats its women very badly. The state has one of the worst male-female sex ratios in India and an abysmal female literacy rate. Which makes the Phogat story even more of a miracle.
Mahavir Singh Phogat belongs to a Hindu Jat family from an obscure village called Balali – think patriarchy on steroids. A national level wrestler himself, Phogat, had a dream to win gold medals for India. He also had four daughters. When they were very young, Phogat realized that there was no contradiction here. Daughters can bring home medals too. So he trained them to become wrestlers. The eldest Geeta became the first Indian woman to win gold in wrestling at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the first Indian woman in wrestling to qualify for the Olympics. Four years later Babita followed in her sister’s footsteps and won gold at the Commonwealth Games.
Dangal is the story of these unlikely champions, of a father who refused to bend and of the daughters he molded into steel. Director Nitesh Tiwari hits the familiar notes of the sports film in which the underdog becomes a champion. But Dangal works because it is about so much more – this is a film about an authoritarian but loving father and his determined daughters. It’s about the immense personal sacrifices and rigor that sport demands – for these girls, long hair, nail polish and eating pani puri was a luxury. Dangal is also about the exhilaration of excellence – the sheer joy of winning. And most importantly, Dangal is about innate strength of women – both in the akhada and outside it.
One of the triumphs of this film is the casting by Mukesh Chhabra. Each actor seems a perfect fit. The real stand-out is Zaira Wasim, who plays the young Geeta. She has a fierce screen presence and is an absolute natural. Fatima Sana Shaikh who plays the older Geeta is also terrific. One of the film’s highlights is a sequence in which Geeta wrestles with her father – sport becomes a battle of wills. Geeta’s youthful arrogance and Mahavir’s hurt bewilderment is heart-breaking. Sanya Malhotra as older Babita and Sakshi Tanwar provide strong support. And I must mention Aparshakti Khurrana, who plays the hapless cousin brother who is forced to wrestle with these iron ladies. He’s brings in just the right dose of comedy that this family requires.
And among this cast of mostly unknown faces, stands an actor we have seen onscreen for almost 30 years – Aamir Khan. And here’s the miracle – he totally blends in. There is not a trace of superstar about him or a hint of vanity. For most of the film, he’s an old, overweight man. Given the Bollywood obsession with looking youthful and flaunting six packs, this itself is an act of courage. But Aamir doesn’t just look the part. He also becomes it. He is by turns, ferocious and tender. There’s a lovely scene in which he’s pressing his daughter’s feet as she sleeps because that is the only time he can express his love. He needs them to see him as the unrelenting coach. It’s a masterful performance.
The writing in Dangal is clunky in places. The beginning has too much exposition and there is a melodramatic climactic twist that I found unnecessary and unconvincing. The wrestling scenes are skillfully filmed – there were times when the thud of bodies on mats made me jump. But it does get repetitive and stretched – especially in the second half. But when Geeta finally wins, it is so rousing and emotional that you forget these soft spots.
I walked out of this film, wiping tears and feeling invincible. I felt I could wrestle down anything that hit me.
How do you put a rating on that?