We menfolk have it rather good, don’t we? There’s nary a phase of discrimination in our lives, be it while pursuing our education, while deciding what we want to do with our lives, while pursuing our interests, while establishing ourselves at our work places, or even while looking for a soul mate. Life for most of the part, for most of us, is a smooth travel in a first class coach. Sure, we have our moments of struggle – who doesn’t? – but they’re usually surmounted with some resolute manner of behaviour and tons of family support. If you think that this opening is reverse sexism, imagine you’re a girl in a village named Balali, Haryana. Where all that you ever took for granted as a man is taken away from you – all your choices swooshed out of existence in a snap. No school, no learning, no exposure to the world. All you learn is household chores, so that the moment you attain puberty, you’re married off in a festivity of relief and offloading – and you’re a cooking range-cum-dishwasher-cum-washing machine-cum pleasure machine from day one – for a man you haven’t even seen ever before in your entire, ephemeral life of innocence.
Director and co-writer Nitesh Tiwari bases his latest project, Dangal (Wrestling Competition/Arena) in this very village (although this could be a mirror to any village, town, or city), on the true story of Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Aamir Khan) and his maddeningly Quixotic dream of getting an international gold medal in wrestling for India. He’s crossed the age rubicon, but has his vision hinged on his yet to fructify progeny. But men propose and chromosomes dispose, so Phogat’s wife, Daya Shobha Kaur (Sakshi Tanwar) delivers their first daughter. The stunned and disappointed Phogat turns to some hilarious advice on how to ensure the second arrival is a bundle of XX. Don’t ask me Y, but there’s yet another daughter added to the family. And then two more, resulting in Phogat tying a noose to his dreams of an international gold wrestling medal in the family. He isn’t a misogynist, nor is he a bad man, just someone who dreamt his dreams through the gender-based lens of his own upbringing and environs. And yet, when his first two daughters – Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) – bring home the tittle-tattle and evidence of a bruised encounter, his moment of epiphany applies salve to his battered dreams.
With co-writers Piyush Gupta, Shreyas Jain, and Nikhil Mehrotra (all from the ad agency Leo Burnett’s lineage) Nitesh Tiwari spins a warm, funny, and yet touching story of Phogat and his two daughters whom he pushes and whips into shape, form, and wrestlers of merit. Dangal may follow the typical arc of the story of sportspersons – rise, fall, and rise – yet that is but a single thread of master weaving that Tiwari accomplishes. The movie works on so many levels, delivers so many eye-opening truths in such sparkling form, that you’re flying life in a cinema hall first class style – the journey’s smooth, enjoyable, memorable, and yet (in a departure from first class travel) humbling. As a movie, it is absolutely superb, nearly flawless, and endearingly uplifting. In a style that’ll give the world’s best phlebotomist a complex, Tiwari draws you into the story and movie so smoothly, so perfectly, you simply flow along. There’s no resistance, no pain, just the experience. How many movies can you describe thus?
Dangal is a true story (with cinematic liberties by the dozen), but the backbone of the story actually belongs to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, for that is the towering achievement that Phogat, Geeta, and Babita accomplished in real life, and that is the achievement that Tiwari so beautifully delivers on the big screen. And amidst the end goal of the gold medal, the movie takes you through the father-daughters’ peripatetic wrestles and learning; of society’s disdainful and sexist chortle at Phogat’s dreams. Men jumping into the wrestling pit in skimpy langots is all good – does anyone actually feverishly wish for that loincloth to shift or fall off during a match? But when a fully-clothed girl decides to wrestle, it’s all kinds of fantasies for men. And yet, the sheer guts Phogat displays in letting his daughter fight boys is a stunner. Labelled feckless and reckless, the father pushes on, even as his daughters grow up – Geeta now played by Fatima Sana Shaikh and Babita by Sanya Malhotra.
Dangal makes you reflect on a parent chasing his dreams of glory via his offspring, while also dreaming of a better and bigger life for her. It makes you think about the daughter’s aspirations once she’s out in the big, bad world, away from the shackled cynosure of her father; of how the in-a-flash gotten independence can be difficult to handle, for both parent and child. It also drives home the point of how, despite winning an argument with your ageing parents, there’s a painfully natant emotion inside of you that prevents you from relishing that win.
Director Tiwari does all this and much more with a handle on his craft that is a delight to watch. The wrestling pieces are simply stunning – never before has any Hindi movie captured the breathless essence of a sport so effectively. The semis and the final pieces of the sport will have you on the edge, wide-eyed in unbearable suspense, as Fatima’s Geeta executes some amazingly nifty wrestling moves on the mat. This movie also ensures that you’ll never ever think wrestling is a sport for lunkheads – in awe, you realize just how demanding and taxing it is – requiring all the brains you’d deploy in a chess game, simultaneously channeling your body strength in sprightly, feline moves. You might not rush out to buy a designer langot, but you’ll never watch a wrestling match like you did earlier. And while you stand up for the national anthem at the movie’s beginning because the instructions display prior, the director also, in perhaps one of the most manipulative, but also very effective turns, hypnotizes you to stand, moist-eyed, along with Aamir Khan’s Phogat – that’s simply a masterful move on the cinematic mat.
The movie also delivers a huge surprise in the form of Pritam’s music score. The composer pulls out of his hat, an unbelievably rustic-rooted soundtrack, that’s also full of punch and swagger. There’s the absolutely riotous Haanikarak Bapu – sung with a complaining zest by Sarwar Khan and Sartaz Khan Barna, with some inspired lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya. And of course, the title track, Dangal, that Pritam attacks with relish using electric guitars, a Vishal-Shekhar rhythm – that they used for their lots-of-fun Dil Haara Re (Tashan) – and of course, Daler Mehndi’s robust and solid vocals that amp up the scenes that much more. Along with music producer Meghdeep Bose, Pritam also scores a very, very powerful-yet-wafting-from-the-background background music.
Dangal also has a stellar cast that makes it the experience it is. There’s Aparshakti Khurrana (actor Ayushmaan Khurrana’s younger brother, if you’re interested) as Phogat’s nephew, delivering a very understated, sweet, and funny performance. Sakshi Tanwar may have limited time as the girls’ mother, but hers is an act of superb strength, empathy, and also comic timing. Girish Kulkarni as the vainglorious coach Pramod Kadam, is a great act, his manipulations and shenanigans perhaps a wee bit too much to digest (though I wouldn’t be surprised if such machinations do happen), and yet paving the way for that master manipulation by the director.
But what makes Dangal a winner is the headlining performances by its cast for Geeta, Babita, and Phogat. As the younger Phogat sisters, Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar are adorably brilliant. Not one moment do you feel they’re acting – such is the ease with which they embrace their scenes and roles. As the grown up sisters, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra are a marvelous find. Fatima as the rebellious champion makes deep impact – for, it is on her performance that the story pivots post-interval. Sanya as her younger and balanced sibling is powerfully sincere and likable. Here’s looking forward to seeing them more.
And in Dangal, Aamir Khan not only puts on the corpulent form in his 98-kilogram weight gain, he also effortlessly slides right into the skin of Phogat’s character. Every scene he’s in, he’s effortless, and yet happy to let the girls own the dramatics, his performance a nuanced tic of responses to them. There are two heart-breaking scenes between him and Fatima – one is a hard-to-watch-hard-to-look-away wrestling duel that crumbles him from inside; the other, a telephone conversation between them. Note how he angrily humphs when he comes on the phone, his eyes shooting bullets of anger and resentment; and yet, the moment he hears her sobbing, those bullets magically transform into pained, concerned, and ultimately loving rivulets of catharsis. There’s another scene that’s so beautifully done, when Aamir walks into the younger girls’ room one night, both of them out like the lights, tired to the bone – he sits on the bed and gently massages their legs. If that scene and his expressions don’t make you hold back a choke, nothing will. With Dangal, Khan’s got good news and bad news – the good news is that he’s crossed a new frontier in his career and in Hindi cinema; the bad news, anything he does next will be a tough follow-up act. But for now, it’s time to sit back, relish his performance as a first class wrestling coach, and be thankful for this first class cinematic ride to end the year in Hindi cinema.
Dangal is rated UA (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). There’s intense wrestling scenes (nothing like the gross WWE), some innuendo.
Director Nitesh Tiwari Running Time 2h 40 min
Writers Nitesh Tiwari , Piyush Gupta, Shreyas Jain, Nikhil Mehrotra
Stars Aamir Khan, Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Aparshakti Khurrana
Genres Action, Biography, Drama
Watch the trailer of Dangal here: