Dangal is the best Bollywood film of 2016. It is one of the finest achievements in Aamir Khan's considerable career. It is immaculately crafted, and the emotional highs and lows in the script reach a resolution that is most satisfying for the viewer--I cried at the end. It epitomises the best of Bollywood-–but despite this, it also reflects the worst of Bollywood.
I don't want to take away from the film's achievement, and its merits are self-evident when you watch it. But here are three things I dislike about Bollywood, which I was reminded of while watching Dangal.
One, Bollywood is sexist. Dangal documents a remarkable story of how women's wrestling blossomed in the most misogynist state in India. And yet, this film is not about the women, but about one man driven by his male ego. Mahavir Singh Phogat, as shown in the film, is motivated purely by the desire for sporting glory--when he cannot get it himself, he wants to get it vicariously through his kids. Everything in the film is subsumed by this quest. Most of the internal life that the other characters of the film reveal is in the context of this man's ego, and they all bend before his will.
The quest for glory is not noble. It is, for both biological and cultural reasons, a fundamentally male quest. It is a bug and not a feature; not a strength, but a weakness to be overcome. Phogat doesn't overcome it in this story, and the film itself is consumed by this weakness.
Dangal documents a remarkable story of how women's wrestling blossomed in the most misogynist state in India. And yet, this film is not about the women, but about one man driven by his male ego.
To be fair, this is not a strike against Dangal per se. We should only judge the filmmakers on the story they wanted to tell, and if that happens to be centred around Phogat's quest for glory, fair enough. But the Phogat of Dangal is an obnoxious character, if you consider his actions, especially in the first half of the film, when he treats his daughters as mere instruments for his ambition, and not as humans in their own right, with their own dreams and desires. (This is, in that sense, a regressive and not progressive film.) But Aamir plays him as a likeable and admirable hero, with joyous validation at the end.
I should clarify, by the way, that my comment is about the Phogat of the film, and not the real-life Phogat, whom I do not know. The man himself must be far more complex and empathetic, with many different motivations. But Bollywood always simplifies, and Dangal simplifies the worst strain of his character. That brings me to my next point.
Two, Bollywood is simplistic. Bollywood's sole mandate has always been to entertain, and for this, simplicity is necessary. Dangal boils down the Phogat story to this one quest for glory, and that's the only note in the film.
Aamir is a wonderful actor, the best among his superstar peers by virtue of being the only one who can act, but every actor is restricted by the scope of the screenplay. Phogat's reactions to everything in this story are monotonic and almost cartoonish, such as his dismay when all his kids are turning out to be girls, shown in a montage that encompasses many years and just one emotion. This simplification is born out of narrative necessity, yes-–but it's simplification nevertheless.
The camera moves too much, there is too much manipulative background music, and nowhere do we actually sense the rhythms of village life, or training in the akhara, or what the characters do in their quieter moments.
This simplistic nature of most Bollywood narratives is what keeps them in place as escapism and not art. And yes, Dangal is an escapist film-–albeit an excellent one-–despite the trappings of realism that it adorns. That brings me to my third point.
Three, Bollywood avoids realism. On the surface, Dangal might appear to be a film that pays great importance to realism. It's stunningly detailed, right down to the cauliflower ears the wrestlers have and to Aamir's own physical appearance. The wrestling scenes are superb. But authenticity of looks, accents and mannerisms are a superficial authenticity.
The characters in this film are played very well--the acting is uniformly exceptional--but they are ultimately cartoons, with just one dimension and no deeper inner life. This is not only due to the simplistic nature of the script, but also the way in which it is made.
Just as our government treats us like babies by censoring films, Bollywood infantalises us by spoon-feeding us during a film. Never does a scene simply unfold, with the viewers reacting as they may. Instead, there will always be background music prompting you to feel in a particular way, a manipulation which is underlined by the way the camera moves, and the way the film is cut. I find this condescending and disrespectful to viewers. (All mainstream movies do this, so this is not a strike against Bollywood alone.)
Dangal suffers from this flaw as well. The camera moves too much, there is too much manipulative background music, and nowhere do we actually sense the rhythms of village life, or training in the akhara, or what the characters do in their quieter moments. Those cadences are missing: so what use the superficial realism?
My criticism above might be unfair because maybe Aamir just set out to make a great mainstream escapist film, and he has succeeded marvellously in that. Dangal is far better than I'd expect from a Shah Rukh or Salman film, because they are not capable of either conceiving or performing better than this. But Aamir is, which is why I feel disappointed.
Aamir Khan is a man of great intelligence, good taste and immense power within the industry – he can make pretty much any film he wants. If there is one person who can make a mainstream Bollywood film that doesn't merely exemplify Bollywood but transcends it, it is him. And that is why I must end by asking, both as a rhetorical lament and a hopeful challenge: Is this the best you can do, Aamir Khan?
Akhada: The Authorized Biography of Mahavir Singh Phogat by Saurabh Duggal is a new book out on Mahavir Singh Phogat, and it's a fine piece of reportage. But the one book I'd really recommend if you want to understand the world of Indian wrestling is Enter the Dangal: Travels through India's Wrestling Landscape by Rudraneil Sengupta. Also check out my earlier feature story on Sakshi Malik, The Girl from Haryana in which a couple of the Phogat sisters play supporting roles.