Direction: Nitesh Tiwari
Actors: Aamir Khan, Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Zaira Wasim, Sanya Malhotra, Aparshakti Khurrana
Rating: 4 / 5
Before you watch Dangal, you need to know that Haryana treats its women very badly. The state has one of the worst 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, Phogat had a dream of winning gold medals for India. He also had four daughters. When they were very young, Phogat realised 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 too.
Dangal is the story of these unlikely champions, of a father who refused to bend and of the daughters he moulded 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 rigour that sport demands — for these girls, long hair, nail polish and even pani puri were luxuries.
Dangal is also about the exhilaration of excellence; the sheer joy of winning. And, most importantly, it is about the innate strength of women, whether in the akhada or outside it.
One of the triumphs of this film is the casting by Mukesh Chhabra. Each actor seems a perfect fit. The real standout 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 and sport becomes a battle of wills. Geeta’s youthful arrogance and Mahavir’s hurt bewilderment are heart-breaking.
Sanya Malhotra as the older Babita, and Sakshi Tanwar as Mahavir’s wife, Daya, provide strong support. And I must mention Aparshakti Khurrana, who plays the hapless male cousin forced to wrestle with these iron ladies. He brings in just the right amount of comedy.
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, nor 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-pack abs, this is itself an act of courage. But Aamir doesn’t just look the part. He 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. It starts out with too much exposition and has 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.
When Geeta finally wins, though, it is so rousing and emotional that you forget these soft spots.
I walked out of this film wiping away tears and feeling invincible. I felt I could wrestle down anything that hit me.
How do you put a rating on that?
Watch the trailer for Dangal here