Dangal: Whose Story is it Anyway?

First of all, this is NOT a review of Geeta, Babita or Mahavir Phogat’s life-story. Because? We don’t “review” other people’s life based on a movie, especially one which has been fictionalised so much, dah! This is my personal reflection on Aamir Khan’s movie, Dangal. Let’s keep it in perspective as you read further.

dangal-4_5-1Dangal, like most Aamir’s movies, is a well-acted, tightly-scripted, and intensely crafted work of cinema. Each actor in the movie has delivered such powerful performances that it’s very easy to get engrossed in the narrative and just listen to what the movie tells you. That’s where we lose it. We start believing in what the movie asks to be believe about itself.

Whose story is Dangal anyway?

In real life and in the movie, Geeta and Babita became successful and known. I am sure they would have given hope to so many other girls in real life; girls who at least follow freestyle wrestling. But this movie is not about them. It is about Mahavir. It is prcisely about this man’s undying desire to be known for a gold medal by self or through his children.. And that’s what is. A movie about a parent’ dreams realised through his children where children have (been shown having) no voice.

The girls didn’t want to become wrestlers. They loathed the practice. Until a melodramatic scene happens where their friend is married off at at fourteen. She tells them how lucky they are to have a father who thinks about their future. He is a better father than many in the village. But did he do it for the girls or for himself, is to moot question.

Now one may say that in early 1990’s (or even now) most children had no voice when it comes to deciding what they wish to do with their lives, and more so girls, so what? This man still made them successful. Of course, he did. We don’t know what would have happened to the girls if he didn’t. May be, worse. May be, better. Indeed Mahavir fought many stereotypes for girls in his village. But he didn’t do it for the girls’ sake. He did it for his dream. He would have done whatever it takes for his child – male or female – to become that gold medalist he hoped to have produced in the family.

And that’s where it’s not about gender empowerment. Because empowerment advocates for strengthening one’s voice. Now in a success-obsessed, patriarchal society like India it is difficult to talk about voice. Frankly, I am not sure what’s more important in life – to be “successful” even though if it may mean one remains a puppet or have one’s own voice.

[Reminder: As I stated in the beginning, I don’t know the full story of the three lead characters (forget the mom. She is not even a character, at least in the movie). And hence this is not a comment of what Mahavir could have done better for his girls.]

Now, imagine if your dad had forced you to do mechanical engineering and had coached you to become the best mechanical engineer in the country. But you had no voice of your own whatsoever in becoming what you become. Even though the whole country admires you and younger people now look up to you. Would you like that? Maybe. Or may be not.

The answer depends upon what you value more – success earned through whatever means or becoming a person with your own voice. Sometimes the lines between these may blur. But it didn’t in this movie. When Geeta used her mind she was villain-ified and had to go on a guilt trip. Only to subvert her thinking so much that she had to ask her dad-coach what should be her strategy in the commonwealth finals. As if she has no personal capacity of think despite having fought so many national/international matches herself! Now much of this part (and the villainous coach) is not true about the life-story of the wrestler, as my google search says. And that’s another problem of the movie. While benefitting from real-life-inspired tag, the movie has taken liberty to fictionalise the real story to the extent that we don’t really know if we are told the story of Mahavir at all.  

Feminism, as defined by most dictionaries, mean, “advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” The movie with it’s tagline “mhari chhoriya chhoro se kam hain ki?” aspires to do that. In fact in the the movie, Mahavir is shown fighting against the village to advocate for the social and economic rights for Geeta and Babita to be able to wrestle. I wonder though if our understanding about feminism also encapsulates empowerment and humanization of women. Once again, let me remind, this is not a critique of Mahavir; he did what he had to in the 1990’s. It’s a question for the filmmakers who chose to use this story to promote women’s empowerment and liberation in 2016. The problem lies in ducking theme of “pursuit of one’s dreams” under the guise of “feminism”.

Now, does Mahavir had to be a feminist to fight for his girls from the very beginning? Or is there a possibility of him becoming one in the process? I am not saying everything starts with the right intent. Sometimes, intent builds up or becomes clearer in the process of pursuing the original intent.

Whether in its way of making or in the way it is being critiqued majorly, I see, the problem of binary. Dangal is either feminist or it isn’t. It’s either patriarchal or it isn’t. In both, we are missing the “being” part of life. The process. The possibilities of us “becoming” something, in this case a feminist. In fact the movie captures a hint of that in several scenes, but most prominently, in the scene before the final match. Where when asked for advise on strategy, Mahavir offers Geeta to fight it for the girls of India. Hopefully by then, he has realised that what he has pursued is bigger than ‘a gold for India in wrestling from someone in his household’. In that moment, it becomes about the aspirations and empowerment of so many young girls who may be looking at his daughters as role mdels. And this could possibly be his journey of becoming a feminist. However, erred it is. That’s an important journey.

Despite having captured in the movie, Nitish and his team has missed highlighting on this journey. The focus on proving him to be a self-righteous father and an amazing coach does make it a great sports movie, may be. But having missed on a powerful opportunity for understanding the journey of what it means to be an ally for women’s empowerment is what fails Dangal in its attempt to be a feminist movie (which it claims to be).

Like most works of literature or cinema, an audience will take away what they want after having engaged with it. Of course, one such work offers multiple narratives; positive and not so positive, explicit and hidden, simple and layered. However, I think, an artist’s work must remain true to the narrative it claims to offer. That’s where Dangal fails. And I am glad it does.

I am a huge Aamir fan. I love his work and passion with which he and his team approaches work. Now, the fact that even amir khan can go wrong in picking up a story and promoting it for what’s it’s not; is just reassuring that mistakes are part of our journey to mastery of our crafts. A Dangal doesn’t dismiss the craftsmanship (or craftwomanship?) of its cast and crew. Neither it takes away anything from Mahavir and his family’s story for what it is. It’s an important story.

The question is, are we going to learn and grow in our own craftsmanship of being an audience, and more importantly, consumers and creators of stories around us? Are we going to look at news and stories critically and respond to them adequately or are we simply going to buy whatever is being told to us? Dangal. Demonetization. Surgical Strikes. Samajwadi Party fiasco in UP. Reaction to Irom Sharmila’s end to fast. Shivaji Staue in Mumbai. Kaveri River dispute. The list goes on.

Let’s open our mind and heart. Lest Black Mirror becomes our reality soon.


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