During one key moment in Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, the national anthem plays. Not the full thing, maybe three-quarters, but enough to get the theatre audience I saw it with thinking. Were they supposed to stand? Were they bound to? What would happen if they didn’t? Writing this now, I’m still conflicted. If I mention that I didn’t stand, could that be used by someone to have me arrested?
I probably wouldn’t have mentioned this burst of national feeling (the anthem was followed by a “Bharat mata ki jai”, coming, thankfully, from the screen) if it had felt in some way integral—or at least in tune with—the film. But Dangal has little use for country before this juncture. The moment feels shoehorned in, like an item number or a comedy track. It makes you wonder: is this the price of making movies in hyper-patriotic times?
Until well into the film, Geeta and Babita Phogat don’t want to win medals for their country, or for themselves. They don’t want anything, really, except their childhood back. But this has been whisked away by their father, a former grappler named Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan), who’s got it into his head that his two older daughters will be champion wrestlers—all because they beat up a couple of schoolboys who were teasing them. And so he wakes them up at five every morning and runs them ragged. He monitors their diet, rations their leisure time. When they protest, he cuts their hair. Eventually, he begins to teach them how to wrestle, also enlisting his hapless nephew in the cause.
There’s a grim, Foxcatcher-like film somewhere inside Dangal, about a father who ruins the lives of his girls by pushing them to make good on his own unfulfilled dreams. But Dangal’s attitude towards Mahavir’s regime is light-hearted—even if he is a tyrant, the film seems to argue, he’s the right sort. The film can afford to paint Mahavir as unyielding and cruel because we know what’s to come: Geeta and Babita will go on to become professional wrestlers as that’s what happened with their real-life counterparts, both national champions and Commonwealth Games gold medal winners.
Because there are no women wrestlers to compete against, Geeta and Babita are pitted against boys in the local dangal (tournament). The build-up to Geeta’s first fight is leisurely, and I found myself wondering if the film—charming as hell up to this point— was going to squander its gains by not being able to make a convincing show of wrestling. Most Bollywood sports films slow down the action, cut it up, use close-ups to hide the actor as much as possible. Dangal, however, observes large portions of its bouts at a distance, enough for the viewer to realise that they aren’t faking the entire thing. The choreography is tremendous, arms hitting bodies and bodies hitting mats with satisfying thwacks and thuds.
As long as it stays in the Phogats’ village of Balali in Harayana, picking up on little details and wisecracks, Dangal is near perfect. In time, however, the older Geeta must move to the National Sports Academy in Patiala to continue her training. At first, this lends the film some useful friction, as the freedom she finds there clashes with her father’s set ideas. But then Dangal loses its nerve and becomes another Bollywood film that won’t allow its lead actor to slip into a supporting role.
(Mild spoilers) The film nearly hobbles itself in its efforts to keep Mahavir relevant. Geeta’s new coach (played by Girish Kulkarni, memorable as the police officer in Ugly) turns out to be incompetent and vindictive, all so her father can swoop in and save the day. (One particular act of villainy committed towards the end belongs in a Tom and Jerry skit.) It might have been more intriguing to see Geeta try and reconcile the techniques she learnt growing up with the demands of the international arena. But the film doesn’t trust the audience to handle any complexity; old good, new bad—end of discussion.
Luckily, even as the Mahavir track becomes increasingly desperate, Dangal never loses interest in the girls. Tiwari, who made the charming Chillar Party, has a knack for getting younger actors to relax on-screen, and the four leads—Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar as the younger Geeta and Babita, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra as the older versions, respectively—respond beautifully to the physical and emotional demands of their parts. Apart from a few flashbacks in which he’s implausibly muscled up, Khan lumbers around a huge gut and an expression of supreme disgust. He’s never been the most natural of comic actors, but Dangal reveals something undeniable: he’s the perfect straight man.
Dangal releases in theatres on Friday.