A few days ago, I managed to get tickets for a night show of Dangal. Everyone who'd seen it was praising it to high heavens and I couldn't remember the last time my social media had been so united in their approval of something. This kind of open-mouthed adoration was normally reserved for the tiny crinkles that form at the corners of Justin Trudeau's eyes when he smiles, Rahul Khanna's drop-your-panties drool-worthiness on Instagram, and, until recently, Fawad Khan's jawline (seriously, that thing could cut diamonds).
Plus, I'm Haryanvi. We may not all be trained in the art of dangal, but if shouting was an Olympic sport, Haryanvis would be bringing back the gold, silver and bronze medals every time. We're a people who don't whisper sweet nothings, we thunder it into the ears of our beloved. I've always loved watching Aamir Khan's many transformations, and I couldn't wait to see him take on the jagged edges of a Jat man who suddenly finds himself championing women.
Except, he doesn't. Not really.
I went into the theatre expecting a film about a father and his two daughters, and how they fight their universe, their own conditioning, society and finally, the "system", to realise what must have felt like an impossible dream. I came out having seen a movie made by a man, about a man, for men.
It's ironic that a movie seeking to celebrate a man's ability to look past his conditioning could not look past its own.
Dangal is an extremely well-made film, undoubtedly. You will find yourself choking back sobs and vibrating with nervous energy as Geeta Phogat stands a hair's breadth away from losing her Commonwealth gold, but none of that can mask how jarringly indifferent the film is to its own female protagonists.
How could the makers have missed that Geeta and Babita Phogat amount to little more than accessories to their father's burning ambition? That Mahavir Singh Phogat's only motivation was a gold medal for the country, not empowering his daughters? That if good fortune had smiled at him in the form of a robust son, he'd never have bothered to look his daughters' way? Which beggars the question: how is he any different from the federation that has no funds left for the ladies after the men's equipment, training and medical expenses have been taken care of?
There are some truly gut-wrenching moments—when the mother looks on dotingly as her daughters dress up in "girly" clothes to go to a friend's engagement party, when the girls gingerly run their fingers on their head, missing their long manes, when they look at pani puri and then their father, pleadingly, Geeta's first taste of freedom—but they are so fleeting, one is never truly allowed to feel the weight of what it means for teenage girls and a mother from a small town in Haryana to be forced to dress and behave like boys. While the camera lingers lovingly on Aamir Khan's face each time he experiences a flicker of anguish, and it never fails to capture the moments when his shoulders droop with the burden of a struggle that refuses to end, none of that attention to detail is reserved for the girls' stories. Like their struggle doesn't matter.
I found myself discussing this strange feeling of being let-down by a film I immensely enjoyed when it struck me—the worst part about Dangal is that none of this is intentional. This ham-fisted characterisation of its two lead women seems to be entirely thoughtless, like it didn't even occur to anyone to hit pause for a moment and think about their neglected women characters.
In resorting to tired story-telling tropes, 'Dangal' unwittingly serves as a collective epiphany: the more things change, the more they really do remain the same.
The easiest refuge of an omission like this is the argument, "Arre but this is the story this team wanted to make, you make your own movie differently na if you have a problem." This argument is what makes it okay to keep treating women like props, making things infinitely worse. To try to tell stories that don't come naturally to you and to get it wrong is tiresome, but at least one can take solace in the hope that as long as people are trying, they will eventually get it right. When one isn't even trying to tell a woman's story through her gaze, what hope is there?
It amazes me that nine years after a movie like Chak De, we're still this myopic in our story-telling. In so many ways, Shah Rukh Khan's Kabir Khan and Aamir Khan's Mahavir Phogat are fuelled by the same hunger. Both want to redeem themselves by watching their charges succeed where they failed. Both find themselves unexpectedly training women. And here's where the two diverge. While Coach Kabir's story runs parallel to the story of each one of his girls, hurtling towards a shared destiny, Geeta and Babita's narratives are swallowed in all the chest-thumping over their father's heroism.
If I wanted to watch a film by a man, for men and about a man, I'd go watch 'Sultan' (which I did, FYI).
Feminism is a great marketing story. It nudges people into watching the film, predisposed to like it. We'd like nothing more than to piggy-back on a person, particularly a man's success in breaking free from the clutches of the patriarchy that tinges the innermost thoughts and behaviours of the best amongst us. Given where he came from, in being able to bring his daughters to and watch them conquer a world stage is, without a doubt, something that makes the real Mahavir Phogat a hero. But it's ironic that a movie seeking to celebrate a man's ability to look past his conditioning could not look past its own. It is even more ironic that in resorting to tired story-telling tropes, Dangal unwittingly serves as a collective epiphany: the more things change, the more they really do remain the same.
This piece would have ended here, but I showed it to a friend who asked me, in all seriousness, if people weren't allowed to make movies about men anymore for fear of being called out by feminists. There's nothing wrong with a man making (another) movie about a man for men, of course, but there is something very wrong about such a film expecting to be congratulated for telling the story of two sportswomen. Besides, if I wanted to watch a film by a man, for men and about a man, I'd go watch Sultan (which I did, FYI).