Experts & Views
By Sthavi Asthana and Anushka Sachdev
Watching Dangal was a truly memorable experience, from the high adrenaline wrestling scenes to the rush of pure pride during the last scene, where Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh) wins the first gold medal in wrestling for the country. It showcases how Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) trained his daughters Geeta and Babita (Sanya Malhotra) to become competitive wrestlers in the backdrop of patriarchal Haryana. The film is a refreshing feminist breakthrough especially when compared to the unfortunate state of contemporary Bollywood cinema. It brings to the fore struggles faced by Indian athletes, especially women athletes coming from a society where sports are seen to be the forte of boys.
Humari betiyaan chhoron se kam hain kya? (are my daughters any less than boys?)
Mahavir was a National level wrestler himself, but had been forced to give up the sport to earn a living, a common enough phenomenon in our country. He had to forego his dreams of winning a medal for his country, but consoled himself with the hope that his son would continue the legacy. But his hopes are dashed when despite several attempts, he fails to father a son. This is where the film so succinctly captures how normal it is to covet sons over daughters, with just about everyone in the village lining up to offer a fail proof ‘totka’ (superstitious remedy) that would guarantee the couple a baby boy. People who brought sweets to offer congratulations would make sympathetic noises and turn away when it is revealed that the baby born was a girl. Even his daughters never questioned why their father wanted a son, why they were not good enough.
However, things change one day when Geeta and Babita beat up two boys for calling them names. Mahavir suddenly realised that even his daughters could carry his dream forward and decided to train them to become wrestlers. This is where we get to see a shift from the ingrained patriarchy. Conditioned to accept established gender roles, Mahavir, and indeed everyone in the village, simply could not imagine that girls could also wrestle. However, once he got the idea, his commitment to their training made him set aside all notions of orthodox ‘modesty’ that was shared by most of the village. This ranged from insisting that his daughters wear the appropriate clothes for their training- t shirts and shorts, to making them wrestle with boys, something that would be considered taboo because of the amount of physical contact required between the contestants. He started to ask “why not” when people told him girls could not become wrestlers, announcing to the world that his daughters were no less than boys.
In such a situation, would it be right to call him sexist for wanting a son in the beginning? Or was he simply unaware, as is seen when he told his wife “maine toh socha hi nahi…medal toh medal hai, chaahe ladka jeete chaahe ladki” (I never realised, a medal is a medal, whether won by a boy or a girl). The film captures a transformation of perspective in its true sense, when a man from orthodox rural Haryana who was desperate for a son to fulfil his dream, dared to think that why not my daughters!
The haanikarak (harmful) training regimen!
The strenuous training that Geeta and Babita were subjected to by their father has faced a lot of criticism. Some claim that it was borderline abusive, while others questioned the right of the father to foist the burden of his dreams on his daughters, forcing them to endure physical hardship as well as social ridicule.
But the message behind the movie must be kept in mind while critiquing the film. Growing up in such a patriarchal social setup, the concept of opportunity as experienced by the girls would be automatically limited. Their aspirations would be restricted to areas which are traditionally considered appropriate for girls, and it is very unlikely that they would seek to achieve glory in sports on their own, especially a completely male dominated sport like wrestling. In such a situation, some amount of direction would be necessary even if it looks forceful initially.
As for the exacting training, it was no more than the training involved in making any other athlete fit enough to withstand the rigours of competition. The girls eventually began to enjoy the sport and became famous for beating much stronger boys in a sport where physical strength would play such a major role. This would obviously require discipline and commitment on their behalf, something that would be unpalatable to most young children. We must also account for the fact that women seeking to make their mark in a male dominated field must often work harder than men to gain the same amount of respect; they cannot afford to be average. Had the girls not been so proficient in their sport, they would likely have been ridiculed throughout and would not have had a very bright future at all. So, if Mahavir wanted his daughters to break the moulds of society and become wrestlers, he had to train them to win, and winning does not come easily.
Papa khush nahi honge (Father won’t be happy)
One thing that stood out in the entire movie was the domineering role played by Mahavir, being the father figure in the family. Although a heavy- handed approach might have been acceptable, even necessary when it came to the girls’ training, such behaviour would be less than ideal when it extends to other aspects of the family. Mahavir was the centre of every discussion, had the last say in every argument. He represents the stereotypical father; his daughters are afraid to discuss things with him, opting to approach their mother to act as mediator instead. Their mother too, was seen to defer to his decisions in every matter, and tries to smooth things by telling the girls to avoid acting in ways that would displease their father. The family would literally stand at attention when Mahavir enters the room.
This male centric view does perpetuate stereotypes, but if considered in the context of the type of society the film seeks to represent, it is unfortunately true. The transformation from one generation (their mother- Daya, played by Sakshi Tanwar) to another (Geeta and Babita) -where the mother hardly spoke against her husband, to Geeta wrestling her father, is truly phenomenal. It went from the role of the mother being confined to bearing children and cooking for the family, to the daughters leading independent lives. All of this was solely possible due to the motivation they received from their father and this is what makes the film revolutionary. Mahavir, despite being a stereotypical father and husband, is extremely revolutionary in his actions. However, it was essential to express the original mindset of the family to highlight the transition in his perspective.
The movie successfully passes the Bechdel test. Geeta and Babita have many conversations centred around wrestling which have little or nothing to do with their father. However, it would not meet the requirements of the Makomori test, since the entire narrative of the movie is centred around Mahavir Phogat’s dream of his child winning an international medal in wrestling for the country. But the Makomori test is only a basic test indicating the representation of women in a movie. Passing the test does not automatically make a movie feminist, and similarly, failing it would not make a movie sexist. Dangal may not pass the test but it takes a major step forward by showing women as professional athletes. Such a representation of strong, independent women is of great significance, especially considering the current scenario where most films only portray women in a romantic narrative, or in traditional roles as the mother or wife of the hero.