You can’t keep a good man down. Or a good woman. Especially if the good woman is the daughter of the good man. That about sums up the energetic crowd-pleaser Dangal, for better or worse — but overwhelmingly better.
Having only seen one film from India before (two if you sneak in Slumdog Millionaire) and being only vaguely familiar with the behemoth that is the Indian film industry and all its sub-categories, Dangal came across this cinematic explorer’s radar by way of a recommendation from a work colleague and a glowing recommendation at that — a huge popular hit and the highest grossing Indian film ever. Even with all the hype, the film did not disappoint. A second, more clinical viewing turned up some niggles, but it’s nonetheless a very satisfying watch.
The film’s opening montage makes it abundantly clear wrestling in this corner of the world is a celebrated masculine tradition with a long history. Lots of loincloths and hairy chests and the first rendition of the theme song to get you pumped. “Dangal, dangal!” Real life figure Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) was the best of the local wrestlers, but lacked the support needed to take his talent to the international arena. Resolving to train his sons to do what he could not, fate delivers Mahavir daughters instead. Initially despondent, he decides to buck village tradition and train his two eldest daughters after their innate wrestling talent is revealed. Outside the lives of these three characters dramatic license comes into play.
Dangal is essentially a story in two parts, with the girls at different stages of their development as wrestlers. The first half, where Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) are put through their paces, is equal parts humourous and heartbreaking. The scene where it dawns on Mahavir that his daughters have wrestling in their blood is funny on several levels, but putting his belief in his girls into practice comes at great cost to them all. Mahavir’s wife (Sakshi Tanwar) refuses to cook meat in her kitchen, so Mahavir has to learn some culinary skills of his own. The entire family becomes the chatter of the village and Geeta and Babita in particular have to weather a deluge of taunts and sneers along with their hard training. However, the tide of chatter turns in their favour when they begin leaving their male opponents in the dust. Cue another pumping song for the soundtrack.
Transitioning via a slick mid-montage time jump, the second half drops most of the comedy and amps up the drama, as Geeta (now played by Fatima Sana Shaikh) moves away to the National Sports Academy, with Babita (now played by Sanya Malhotra) not far behind. Differing lifestyles and training methods threaten to break up the family bonds developed over the years of hard yakka and stymie the realisation of Mahavir’s dream of winning gold at the Commonwealth Games for India.
Dangal hits the expected highs and lows of an underdog sports movie with the regularity of a training workout. In that sense it’s fairly by-the-numbers, but executed clearly and with emotional heft. Little embellishments are thrown in to keep the going fun, like the demonstration of Mahavir’s prowess from his younger days being set to the commentary of a wrestling match on TV. When it’s time to explain the rules of competition wrestling, a punch line is building along with the escalating throws being demonstrated.
As well as executing the sports movie playbook to a tee, another goal Dangal achieves is the lionisation of Mahavir Singh Phogat, wrestler extraordinaire, accidental feminist and faultless coach. Misgivings about his motivations and uncompromising approach are brought up, but quickly moved aside. He’s always right and everyone comes around to doing things his way eventually. Now, you have to admire the guy for sticking to his guns, but it makes his character and overall story arc a bit static. This sticks out most in the second half with what feels like an artificially injected conflict with the arrogant National Sports Academy coach (Girish Kulkani) to bolster the drama and again prove how right Mahavir is. Having a driven and sometimes distant character remain essentially the same throughout the story could make it feel like it’s going nowhere, so it’s a credit to Aamir Khan’s acting performance that Mahavir avoids being just a stern taskmaster. He also works in concert with the makeup department, moulding himself to look the part across a range of ages so the character at least changes physically. He makes for a solid centre of the story which allows his daughters plenty of room to shine. The spirited performance of Zaira Wasim as young Geeta is especially fun and it’s through her character that the wrestling action really starts to ramp up.
I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of this wrestling action. There’s been some stellar combat sports choreography coming round the past few years — see Creed for example — and Dangal sits comfortably in this company. Action director Sham Kaushal and wrestling coach and choreographer Kripashankar Patel Bishnoi really show off the sport, with exciting movements orderly cut together to great effect. The jostling and grappling is punctuated with rolling and throwing for tussles that are probably more showy than reality, but perfect for the screen. Having never seen the sport before, by the end of the film I felt like I understood it and wanted to see it for real. The main detraction for the action unfortunately happens at the climactic moment of Geeta’s rematch against her ostensibly Australian nemesis, with two shots that plainly don’t match. Other than that, the actors do a stellar job and the stunt performers were never obvious, so kudos to all involved for pulling all the action together so smoothly. It gives the movie a huge lift.
That one other proper Indian film I have seen is the 1975 extravaganza Sholay and it was a bit of a shock to hear it mentioned by name during Dangal. Perhaps this is to encourage perception of the two films as in the same league, seeing as they are both going for all-out entertainment. Dangal definitely has a broader appeal — it’s shorter and more focused, compressing the song and dance bits and dispensing with oddball plot diversions. As the credits roll, it’s once more time to rock out to the awesome theme song. “Dangal, dangal!”