The trailer of Aamir Khan's forthcoming film Dangal offers a glimpse of the inspiring real-life story of the Haryanvi wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, who trained his daughters Geeta and Babita Kumari to become international-level wrestlers. Yet, beyond the film, the story of the Phogat family is compelling for several reasons.
In training his daughters to become wresters, Mahavir was not only bringing about a women's wrestling revolution in what has been a traditionally male-dominated sport, but also doing it in a state known for its gender inequality, a low sex ratio of 879 and a female literacy rate of 65.94%, according to the 2011 Census.
Mahavir was not only bringing about a women's wrestling revolution in what has been a traditionally male-dominated sport, but also doing it in a state known for its gender inequality.
Mahavir has trained six female international-level wrestlers -- Geeta, Babita, Ritu, Sangeeta, Vinesh and Priyanka -- who share numerous international medals between them. The first four are his own daughters, and the other two are daughters of his deceased brother. They were also the first women in their family and village of Balali to take up wresting.
Born in the village of Balali in Haryana to a pehelwan father, Mahavir came to Delhi at the age of 16 to train under Padma Shri-winning wrestler Chandgi Ram. In the 1980s, he earned a name for himself as a successful mercenary wrestler, fighting and winning dangals in different villages in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
In 2014, when Aamir Khan interviewed Geeta and Babita on his talk show Satyamev Jayate, the two sisters revealed how their father introduced them to wrestling.
In 2000, when Indian weightlifter Karnam Maleshwari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, Phogat decided to initiate his daughters into wrestling. "In the 2000 Olympics, when Karnam Malleswari won a medal, our father thought that he has four daughters too," Babita recalled on Satyamev Jayate. "When she can win a medal in the Olympics, why can't my daughters win a medal too."
Mahavir was also influenced by his coach, Chandgir Ram, who had introduced his own daughters to wrestling several years ago and whose Delhi-based Chandgi Ram Akhara was one of India's first centres to allow women wrestlers. "Masterji opened my eyes," Mahavir said in a recent interview. "He used to tell me, "What you are doing for your girls, you will see one day that it will bring you great happiness. So keep doing it, don't be scared, face your difficulties like you face opponents, and be deaf to the criticism."
Eventually, because there were no other girls that the sisters could practise with, he asked the Geeta and Babita to start training with boys.
Phogat left his job at the Haryana State Electricity Board and began training his daughters. He asked them to start running in the farms every day and made a makeshift akhada next to his own house. Eventually, because there were no other girls in the village that the sisters could practise with, he asked Geeta and Babita to start training with boys. The decision led to considerable criticism and ridicule from conservative village elders, but Mahavir held his ground.
"I thought my girls can lead the country in women's wrestling if I train them properly. So I taught them all the tricks that I knew and then took them to local dangals. But they were not allowed to fight and I was warned to not bring my girls to the dangals, which the villagers said were fiefdom of boys," Mahavir told The Times of India in 2015. Later, he took Geeta and Babita to the Sports Authority of India centre in Sonipat for further training.
Mahavir proved to be a tough and demanding taskmaster, making his daughters practise as much as the boys and even punishing them. "If we lost to them in a race or fell weak before them , father would hit us," Geeta said in the Satyamev Jayate episode. "He would scold us too. We often think that if we had a coach like our father we would have never gone back. We would have come home."
In 2010, the eldest of the Phogat siblings, Geeta, won India's first-ever gold medal in women's wrestling in the 55 kg freestyle category at the Commonwealth Games. She followed it up with a bronze at the 2012 World Championship, another first for Indian women, and became the first-ever Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics in 2012. Her success was emulated by her other sisters, with Babita winning the silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and gold in the same competition four years later. Vinesh won a gold a the 2014 Commonwealth Games and a bronze at the 2015 Asian Wrestling Championships.
The rest was history.