India’s second national sport, after cricket (although it’s officially Hockey), is going to the movies. Ask even the most American of Indian Americans, and they’ll tell you many a fable about the Khans of Bollywood, and the pivotal role they’ve played in shaping Indian cinema over the pass twenty five odd years. Their latest offering Dangal, released under Aamir Khan Productions, is a rousing biopic on the life of Mahavir Singh Phogat, a professional Indian wrestler who achieved fame both in the ring and as a coach, guiding his daughters to multiple Commonwealth Games medals.
Bollywood is run by Khans. Shahrukh, the most internationally famous Khan, has built his superstar persona doing stereotypical, sensitive, pretty-boy roles, ones in which he usually serenades his potential suitor under her window, and knots his scarf in slow-motion the exact same way in front of various different backgrounds. Salman Khan, endearingly referred to as “Bhai” (brother) by his legions of loyalists, is the archetypal Indian macho man, complete with cheesy pick-up lines and fairly problematic dance sequences, in which the male protagonist practically chases the heroine into submission. All of the Khan productions consistently rake in upwards of 100 crores (one billion rupees) at the box office.
Set in the state of Haryana, the story flits back and forth between two timelines, one in which Mahavir (Khan) is in his prime, winning the Indian National Wrestling Championship with ease, and the other in which he’s the guru, teaching his young daughters the basics of wrestling, and fighting his way to get their names on the wrestling pit (“akhadas”) lists. The role of Mahavir Singh Phogat was a highly demanding one, and Aamir dedicated the better part of a year to getting into fighting shape. (If you’re keen on reading an entire article on his deltoids, here you go:
He shot the film in reverse order, doing the youngest parts of Phogat’s life last, so that he’d end the film in fit, as opposed to flabby and fat, form. Aamir’s dedication to the role can only be matched by Farhan Akhtar’s body transformation for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, an equally brilliant work.
Scene from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag:
Aamir’s stellar performance is complemented by some brilliant supporting characters as well. The young and fully grown Phogat sisters, Babita and Geeta, were played to perfection by the four actresses, and the wrestling scenes were shot in spectacular fashion (all of the actors had a dedicated wrestling coach to teach them the precise motions and actions).
The disturbing gender double standards and misogynistic mindset still prevalent in India was brought to the fore poignantly. One scene that moved me to tears was when young Geeta and Babita were complaining to their fourteen-year-old cousin, on the eve of her wedding, about how their father forces them to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to train. Some moments in the film made me proud to be an Indian, but most stood out as stark reminders about how much work we still have to do before our society’s mindset is truly reformed and egalitarian.
Traversing each rung of the sports ladder is progressively more difficult, and Phogat shows resilience and determination as he deals with a misogynistic framework, very much set up to favor men. One unforgettable scene is Phogat’s interaction with a bureaucrat on the local sports committee. In an effort to get mats for his daughters to practice properly on, he pleads to this portly, moustached employee. The bureaucrat, who couldn’t care less about Phogat or even sports in general, promptly breaks for lunch, leaving Phogat disappointed. It’s these frustrating situations that did a great job highlighting the broader problem at hand.
Besides telling a heartening true story well, the movie is worth watching for its cinematographic sophistication as well. Those familiar with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s work and his visual excess would spot strains of that in some of these shots, with the earthen clay flying in a glorious, slow-motion crescendo and bodies colliding in a brutish ballet. India’s recent wrestling renaissance, which has been pioneered in part by Phogat, has made me look at wrestling with a newfound appreciation. It’s almost like playing chess with your body, moves and countermoves launched with electrified speed. It requires not just stamina and strength, but the most efficient usage of the human body.
The movie itself also serves as a public service announcement, communicating that the norm isn’t always right, and that pioneers always have to deal with resistance before truth and justice succeed. The adept and thoughtful manner in which the film has been produced almost guarantees a brighter future for wrestling in India.
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