It’s probably useless to attempt to review Dangal. Everyone knows what it’s about. It’s doing well. It’s a movie that I enjoyed watching. It’s a good movie. But I’d like to add — and this might be necessary, because the momentum like that sometimes makes people believe that a movie is lot more that it is — it’s not great, or near perfect, as some reviewers may like you to believe. Not that it has to be. Not that it was even intended to be. Which is fine, really. Neither were Lagaan, or Titanic, or Three Idiots, or umpteen other celebrated movies in Bollywood/Hollywood.
Dangal has a few things going for it, yes. Good acting (nope, not great, good). Decent story-line. Excellent pace. A dose of desh-prem. A somewhat progressive take on gender equality (although not, if you look closely, and we will). Decent music. Shot well, especially the wrestling training and matches — it all looks very real.
But once the euphoria is over, a few hours after the credits roll up, one starts to ruminate (can there be a better word to describe it — because it’s exactly what bovine species does with food, eat first, chew later) over the film, and those things that jarred when you were watching it, but you couldn’t put your finger on (or even wanted to, then), start raising their not-so-pretty heads.
So here are some problems with Dangal:
The generic biopic problem of Bollywood
Bollywood is terrible when it comes to biopics. It trades nuances for punches, and uncomfortable facts for pulp. Unfortunately, Dangal doesn’t buck that trend (I have not seen Mary Kom, so not sure if it does). While it makes for an overall interesting viewing, I think a more nuanced portrayal might have made it a more honest, and generally a better movie.
Except for Mahavir Singh Phogat’s character, most other characters are placeholders to bend against his will as required. Even the two girls, who end up winning International Golds are basically puppets at the hands of Mahavir, all through the movie. Its only two times that Geeta is seen showing some agency. Out of this, when she chooses to reject her father’s authority on life and coaching, she is a spectacular failure. Predictably, it’s when she chooses to take advice from her father in the crowd as opposed to her coach, does she do well. The father is always right. The international level (caricature of an) coach is always wrong. There is no scope for nuances or gray shades.
Gender equality without agency
Yes, the movie has an explicit message of treating your daughters no less than sons, and Mahavir seems to mouth the same near the end, mansplaining it to the girls. But even that is almost accidental. One is supposed to feel for Mahavir early on when he is cursed with a daughter after daughter. It’s only when he realizes that they can fulfill his dream, that Mahavir actually starts looking at them as, well, to put it mildly surrogates for boys. In fact no women in the film has any agency (and when they seem to have it, they’re wrong — like Geeta’s friend at the institute who spoils her). The girls have to do what Mahavir tells them. The mother has zero say in the business.
Another obsession of Bollywood that Dangal doesn’t manage to free itself from is the ubiquitous melodrama. Some of the scenes are absolutely ridiculous. Like Mahavir showing the album of the girl’s prize money and pleading with the officials at National Institute of Sports when they are about to expel the girls. What the coach does near the end is so atrociously melodramatic. Or the scene where Geeta calls her father on insistence of Babita, after realizing that it’s not working out for her. Nowhere is there a visible effort to make it subtle, more nuanced. Nowhere is the conflict genuine, and answers complicated.
Implications on Parenting
We live in crazy times where as it is parents are pushing their kids to the limits — for their own good, obviously, if you ask them. What the film seems to be glorifying Mahavir’s bullheaded pursuit of vicarious excellence (a friend of the girls says she’d rather have a father like Mahavir, when the girls are complaining of their plight, because at least he treats them as someone who could be something, but it’s a very specific something that he wants — more for himself — and it’s not negotiable, and in that sense the girls are as much instruments in the hands of a single person, as the friend is in the hands of a patriarchal system). There are no seeds of doubt sown anywhere. Excellence comes at a cost, and the cost has to be paid by the children, because a parent knows the best. I’m so worried that a lot of Indian parents will just take the movie as a validation of their, sometimes excessive, pushing of children towards a statistically unlikely glory in real life.
So yes, Dangal has its moments. It’s fun. It’s even temporarily uplifting. But as the hangover recedes, I could not help but feel sad at an opportunity lost, of a honest, nuanced biopic. Then again, 100s Cr club membership requires you to abandon nuances. Not even Amir Khan will that price (no don’t tell me Taare Zameen Par was nuanced).