Dangal has made almost 600 crore from worldwide collections. So last weekend when we made a trip to the movie hall  we were probably among the few remaining Hindi speaking people who were yet to catch it. As we left the theatre three hours later, we could see why. What a movie! For a standard issue sports underdog story, this was a smashingly original telling. And some stories need to be told this way. At this pitch and this volume. I haven’t watched a movie in recent times that was so exhilarating, so feel good uplifting. When the National Anthem played near the end, everyone was on their feet – no watchdog needed at all.

Dangal hits the ground running. The first scene is a lesson in economical storytelling. In about five minutes you are:

  1. Introduced to the protagonist
  2. Given a very clear idea of his motivations
  3. Given a clear and depressing picture of the state of sportspeople in India
  4. Forget all that! You are pulled into the movie. My kids had not wanted to come to watch the film. But even though they did not get much of the Haryanvi dialect, they already knew they were going to love it.

The performances are all stellar – especially the children who are top notch! And the decision to use humour to build the characters probably earned them a huge fan-base among the kids. My boys laughed right through the first half. They had absolutely no sympathy to spare for the poor girls and their five am training sessions upto the point when their head was shorn. Then they both reacted with shock and sympathy. Dangal is a truthful movie that way. They don’t sugarcoat bitter facts. They let you see the shame when the two modestly dressed girls are forced to leave their house to jog in shorts for the first time. They let you see the tyranny even though they allow you to laugh through it.

And most stories of sporting heroes do involve some childhood tyranny. Many children have natural talent. Only a few find someone who pushes them to fulfil their potential.

Which is why it was a shock to me when outside the theatre,  my mother in law turned to me and said – ‘We need more such movies in India. To show people that girls can do more than manage the choolah-chokha‘. I was brought up short. Could this movie be seen as a message of empowerment? Not till the very end of the movie did I ever get a sense that the girls were playing to win – for themselves. Not even in the early dangals when Geeta beat boys bigger than herself and marched proudly into school. In fact one of the most moving sections of the film was when Geeta finally breaks free from her father. At the sports academy where she finds herself, grows her hair, paints her nails, watches movies, does a bunch of normal girl stuff and loses her mojo. She wasn’t wrestling well but she seemed to be being herself. So when Mahavir Phogat berated the coach for not letting Geeta play her natural game, it sounded a bit rich to me.

I do totally get that this is a real life story, set in Haryana. A state that has 879 females per 1000 males because baby girls are killed or not allowed to be born. No one is going to sit and applaud two girls who, I don’t know, become master chefs here. I get that. But pushing at a barrier to prove a point is still not ultimately empowering. Being in an environment where you can make your own decisions is. I understand that it is a long road to get there, and these two girls did great work taking people there. But my mother in law’s remark still threw me. This is a woman who has spent her whole life minding choolah and chokha. Raising kids. Not going out to work. I think that’s ok. If that’s what someone wants to do, it is an empowered choice. There is nothing inherently superior in going to work versus choosing to stay at home. I should not need to do a man’s job to feel good about myself. What bothered me then, and on reading some of the discourse around Dangal was this style of empowerment message. In seeking to empower women, we should be careful to not demean those duties that have traditionally been considered womanly. To mark them as somehow inferior to those duties that have traditionally been performed by men.

However, this is still a great film. With amazing and truthful performances by the kids, the lovely Sakshi Tanwar and zero hamming by Aamir Khan. In fact the only very Aamir thing he did at all was to choose to play the younger version of Mahavir Phogat after he gained a paunch to play the old guy. I loved this video of how he managed the transformation.


And then I loved this analysis.


I also loved Aamir’s cauliflower ear in the movie!