After two hours and 41 minutes of watching Dangal, Aamir Khan go from youth to middle age to senior citizen, go from fit to fat, after watching his two cute daughters grow into skilled and confident sportspersons, you come out of Dangal feeling a little mangled.
Nitesh Tiwari spares no punches as he authentically executes scene after scene of grueling wrestling matches fought between pre-teen girls facing and overcoming prejudice and conservatism in small town India as they pummel local amateur wrestlers, and grow to compete in international level wrestling matches. Round after round, Geeta and Babita Phogat attack and defend and chase medal glory to fulfill their father Mahavir Singh Phogat’s dream of bringing a gold medal home to their country.
If you have seen the trailer of Dangal and have some knowledge of the true story it is based on, then you can chart the graph of Tiwari’s film. There are no surprises in the screenplay which leans on the lazy narrative device of using a voiceover to narrate the story. It’s told from the point of view of Phogat’s nephew, Omkar, who is both observer and participant in this inspiring story. A father has the awakening that his dreams of sporting glory did not die with the inability to produce sons, but can be achieved just as well by his daughters.
Phogat, father of four daughters, trains his two oldest – Geeta and Babita – to be champion wrestlers. But more importantly he empowers them to stand equal in society. Mahavir is so dogged that the even risks alienating his supportive wife (Sakshi Tanwar). The message – repeated often and underlined each time – is that a girl child is no less than a boy. One scene spelling out the idea is when a child bride tells Geeta and Babita that their father’s seemingly cruel way (hard drills, cutting off their hair, restricted diet) is far preferable to feeling like a burden on the family to be married off at 14 to a man she has never met. This is a turning point for Geeta and Babita who have a new found respect for their father and recognise that the training they are receiving is their ticket out from a discriminatory and sexist society.
Once a little older, Geeta qualifies for international training and moves to the National Sports Academy in Patiala where she is assigned a new coach. Thus the stage is set for another round of conflict between father and daughter. Babita is still young and under her father’s unconventional but effective tutelage. All these are expected tropes in a sports biopic, which ends with a silly plot twist followed by the ultimate manipulation — the playing of the National Anthem and a cry of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ as a Gold is won at the Commonwealth Games.
But in the final tally, the outstanding and committed performances by the four girls – the younger Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar and the older Fatima Sana Sheikh and Sanya Malhotra – shephered by a faultless Aamir Khan. As Phogat he’s impressively agile and skilled as a wrestler in the ring, tyrannical and cold as a trainer at home, tender as a father and husband and an unflinching believer in equal rights everywhere. He is the part, completely, pot belly and all.
What the screenplay does not deliver and the length of the narrative further bogs down, the production design, camera work, action scenes and wrestling bouts make up for. You don’t see cheats, you don’t see shorthand – these girls are being tossed and thumped and seem to be fighting for real with equally able opponents.
A special mention must be made of the casting of the two young girls. While Khan has been mentoring the older two actors, it’s in fact Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar who are the real finds of ‘Dangal’. Tanwar, Ritwik Sahore (as the younger Omkar) and Aparshakti Khurana (as the grown up Omkar) are fine additions to the world created by Tiwari.
As far as sports films go, Dangal may not be high on narrative surprises, but its one of the the most authentic we have seen. It’s characters seem real and their pain, struggle and victories are convincingly hard fought and won.