Indian parents belong to two different camps – the rigidly conventional type who thinks it is best if their children followed the same path as theirs, and the second, the broad-minded type that believes in trusting their children’s judgment and leave them to carve their own paths. Mahavir Singh Phogat, the character that Aamir Khan plays, falls somewhere in the middle. He is conventional and yet unconventional at the same time. I guess there should be a special category for such parents.
Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal is a textbook biopic of the father of Geeta Phogat, the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. As a young wrestling champion once, Mahavir dreamed of winning the gold medal himself. When he couldn’t fulfill this dream, he hoped to achieve the same vicariously through his son(s). But after his wife gave him four daughters, he decided to bury this dream forever until a small, life-altering incident made him hopeful once again – he found out that his daughters had thrashed two young boys in the neighborhood.
The elated and proud Mahavir, instead of admonishing them for this behavior, decides to turn them into wrestlers. Everyone thinks he is crazy. The wrestling arena is not for women, they tell him. Like an army drill sergeant, he puts his two daughters Geeta and Babita through a rigorous and disciplined routine every single day. He wakes them up at 5 am, controls their diet and forbids them from any activity that would take their mind off wrestling. He makes them look like boys. He doesn’t care. He wants his daughters to be not only physically and mentally strong but also self-sufficient.
He is someone who cannot be reasoned with. I mean, this is a man who asks his daughters to jump into the river to teach them a lesson. These early scenes make one ask if it’s really necessary to make these little girls suffer like this. At one point, a young Geeta asks, “What kind of a father puts his daughters through such torture?”, and slowly begins to despise him. But when a 14-yr old bride makes them realize that their temporary suffering is paradise compared to the lifelong torment that she is going to be subjected to, they begin to feel grateful for having a father like him. And we too wish every girl had a father like him.
While the first half deals with Mahavir’s attempts to mold his young daughters into successful wrestlers, the second half deals with the girls’ transition into adulthood. Old and new ideas clash and in one scene, Geeta literally has to wrestle her father. Thankfully, the melodrama is kept to a minimum. Aamir hasn’t delivered a solid performance like this in ages. As always, the man’s ability to undergo extreme transformations is remarkable. He plays tough and compassionate with equal aplomb. Both Fatima Sana Sheikh and Sanya Malhotra are terrific as Babita and Geeta. And Sethu Sriram’s cinematography is striking and evocative.
Dangal does the same thing as that other Aamir Khan film Lagaan, minus A.R Rahman’s music. Yes, it is unabashedly old-fashioned and it has been designed to do one thing and one thing only: lift your spirits. At this, it succeeds, and I can’t complain. Despite being already aware of the final outcome, the tense and impressively choreographed wrestling sequences got my pulse racing. The film somehow manages to find a nice balance between arthouse and commercial cinema. This is Aamir’s best film since Dil Chahta Hai. It isn’t exactly a game-changer but it is a necessary one.