A lot has been said about Dangal being a feminist film or not. While some critiques have pointed out at the patriarchal figure of Mahavir, others argue for keeping in mind the context of the character. Reviewers have not talked about the film itself but rather have become essays on the inspiring real life story of the Phogat sisters and their father. Reviewers it seems have been more honest to the story than the film itself.
Undoubtedly, the story of Phogat sisters hailing from Haryana, which not only has the worst sex ratio but rigid patriarchal khap panchayats, is extraordinary. Their struggle to own the wrestling court, the Dangal, and play a sport which is traditionally a men’s fiefdom is a very liberating narrative.
However what the film does to the story is far from empowering. There is a deliberate choice to show the movie from the point of view of the father. The story starts well before the birth of the sisters. Aamir Khan’s character is established at the outset as he defeats a man bigger and younger than him. Through this we enter the emotional universe of Mahavir Phogat which shall remain central in the entire film.
Wrestling becomes what Mahavir Phogat deems is wrestling and the central conflict of the film is whether what he thinks is wrestling is wrestling or not. All other narratives and conflicts are ironed out.
For Mahavir, wrestling is not just a sport but a lifestyle which must not include “feminine” qualities like eating sour food, having long hair or dressing up for weddings.
The resistance of the sisters against the father’s forced schedule is mocked as mini freedom struggle. When Geeta goes to National Sports Academy and gains a sense of freedom and self. She grows her hair and polishes her nails and even flirts with the opposite sex. Her lifestyle then, according to the film, becomes unfit for wrestling. She has “changed” a lot according to her younger sister.
When she is teaching a new technique to the girls at the local akhara, she is criticised by her father however what he offers is not some real critique of the move but more of a wounded ego. And we as spectators must suffer the wound on his ego as he is defeated by her daughter which is celebrated by most masters as a sign of a protege’s excellence. So we see the onlookers sorry faces and sad music with the helpless expressions of the father losing to the daughter. I don’t understand why is that such a tragedy in the film. As if emotional picturisation of the scene was not enough, Babita tells her sister what happened was not good. Her pride, her changed ways meaning a mind of her own outside the control of her father is not good. His pride is celebrated from the beginning as he defeats his colleague, as he comments wrestling is in blood not in the body, as he bargains with the chicken seller but her pride is a bad thing.
The pride of the father is disturbed and it must be restored. The one who challenged it must be punished. Hence follows the intentional juxtaposing of geeta’s matches with her new techniques and babita’s matches with her father’s old ones. She loses while Babita wins. She comes back begging to her father.
The film goes to the extent of showing the coach as a villain against the figure of the father, which now Aamir Khan has called entirely fictional. I mean the coach can be accused of abduction for locking up Mahavir. However, Geeta’s real life coach is not happy about the portrayal and says its inaccurate.
The final match of the film when she proves she has a mind of her own without the father must also be attributed to the memory of father. She can think for herself well because her father told her she should. So the only scene in the movie where geeta proves she is an independent wrestler is undercut by playing the scene from her childhood wherein lies the clue to her victory.
Cinema is a powerful medium and films can make us laugh and cry at their will. The fact that we have a censor board which determines what the public must view reinforces the power of the medium. This film makes us detest the individuality that Geeta finds and cry for the hurt pride of the father and rejoice when it is restored.
Geeta’s story is bursting out of the film despite all efforts to hide it behind the larger than life character of Mahavir Phogat. It is heartening to see her long hair and married to the boy she chose to.