The Patriarchal Wrestler: Dangal

Dangal – the Wrestler (2016)

The latest Aamir Khan-starrer and production has attracted much attention. A run-away success, Dangal is like Lagaan of 2001, Taare Zameen Par of 2007, or 3 Idiots of 2009. Aamir has something about him which fascinates us and keeps audiences glued to him.

His latest offering Dangal (2016) is no exception to it. The multi-crore film produced by Aamir Khan and directed by Nitesh Tiwari works well as a mass entertainer. Aamir is Aamir. He can strike an instant chord with audience; he can offer something different in a formula industry; he can look for the underdog and lift him/her high to be seen, admired and applauded. And that’s it. Or, feel good about the underdog, and forget it.images

We are accustomed to Lagaan – the ‘nationalist’ drama with our national obsession cricket as metaphor to repay the British in their own coin. We have watched Taare Zameen Par, and have learnt that it is not important to study if you find it not to your taste. Just say you have dyslexia, and you will become an engineer, conquering the techno-savvy Japanese. And how we loved it! We have admired Aamir for his genius in 3 Idiots, even though a few quality film-buffs complained that there was one less!

Whoever would deny that Aamir has understood the mass psychology? Even one better than multi-star obsessed Karan Johar?

Dangal, with some hummable numbers, begins with a household realigning its TV antenna on the rooftop since they were not getting sports broadcast to watch the channel in their village in Haryana. Then we move on to the lovable Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir), the country wrestler. He wants -well we all know- a boy to fulfil his dream of winning a gold for India in wrestling. For a gold-starved nation of a billion plus population, what more nationalism would you expect? No! His wife delivers girl after girl; but Aamir is afterall our hero, he doesn’t blame his wife for girls. And we have some humour with every villager turning an expert in delivering a baby boy for Aamir! All that Mahavir can do in his nobility is give up his dream for an Indian gold.

Then one fine day he sees his two daughters have hammered two boys black and blue. Voila! There you are! Suddenly the girls are brought up into boy-mould – regular exercises, shorts (!), wrestling, and even cut their hair short – against their will, because something very good will happen in the future. When the girls fight against all odds (well, it’s their father!) and overcome anti-women attitudes, defeating every male opponent, it’s time for international competition. Now training of the elder Geeta shifts to National Sports Academy (NSA), Patiala. She learns to be a girl, and yet pursue her father’s dream. But she must have an evil coach! And Geeta can’t win a single medal at the international level, even though she proves her father’s training was weaker than the ‘professional’ training of her NSA’s evil coach.

The visuals quickly alternate between her village (younger Babita) and NSA (Geeta). Finally, there is the (in my words:- ) much-defamed, corrupt (for the Suresh Kalmadi-esque) 2010 Commonwealth Games held in Delhi. And what do you expect?

Aamir Khan (with Nitesh Tiwari) packs a good emotional punch; if you are an emotional weakling, be prepared to be suffocated with a lump in your throat. And then there is that typical Lagaan-esque “nationalism” – passion and commitment a gold in wrestling. And you feel nationalistic (why not? The Supreme Court of India has mandated it!)

Many a viewer exists the film screen with that feeling – Wow! Feels nice to be an Indian. Feels nice to be a girl. Feels nice to be a women’s liberator. We love that nationalist jingoism, we love the underdog stories, we love the subtle emotional tear-jerkers.

But the underlying ideology is highly patriarchal. It is the father all through. He has decided his daughters would be wrestlers; he has decided their diet and fitness regime; he has decided their dress; he has decided their hair hinders their wrestling, and hence need to be cut. There is no difference between boy and a girl in their upbringing, in their identity, in their emotional structure. ‘So what?’ you ask, ‘if it blocks their wrestling, and now they succeed?’ No, it’s not just succeed. Geeta has become typically ‘girlish’ with other female wrestlers at NSA – with TV, food, friends, time-pass, and longer hair. And she can’t win a single medal!

There is the father again; and she realises her hair holds the key. She cuts it short, and now there is no stopping her – even against Melissa the Australian who beat her twice earlier, or the unbeatably strong Nigerian and who else! It’s her male-chauvinist father whose memories and advise per her up overcome her failures and be a champion. It is to him she attributes her success, against her ‘professional’ coach – ‘mere Papa!’.

That is how our entertainment media pack these anti-women, highly patriarchal messages. And they go down our sub-conscious as such, in the name of ‘different’, ‘meaningful’, ‘film with a message’ media fare.

Three kudos to Aamir for packing such an entertainer with foot-tapping music and visuals and dialogues and humour. But not for the highly patriarchal, subtly anti-women film.

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