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Dangal: Do we celebrate a father like this?

The behaviour of Aamir Khan's veteran wrestler in Dangal raises serious questions about parenting

So I finally saw the movie of the moment, Dangal. And yes, I liked what I saw: the fibre of this man Phogat, the hard work, the worth of women, all that. Most of the actors were good, and the awe-inspiring wrestling scenes were skillfully executed.

Not to say I didn’t have the objections others have had: why introduce a coach, and a somewhat bizarre one at that? Were those scenes of simultaneous diametrically opposite instructions to Geeta even plausible? Is it credible that the coach would arrange for Phogat to be locked away during the gold-medal bout? The real story is plenty dramatic; why introduce drama that never happened into the bouts? Perhaps more, too.

But in the end, none of those things mattered a whole lot to me. They didn’t detract from a generally fine film. And yet, something nagged quietly at me all through, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. Let me try to explain.

Here’s how we’ve often heard the typical Indian parents’ relationship to sports described. They will let their child play every sport possible as he grows. I use “he" deliberately, because part of this possibly stereotyped image is that parents are less supportive about their girls playing games. 

Still, in either case, the enthusiasm stays as long as academic pressures are relatively low. Come exam time, though—and especially the Class X and Class XII board exams of the mid-teen years—and things change. Then, studies take over, and sports must give way. 

Perhaps it’s too much to ascribe our generally poor standards in most sports solely to this, and it is a generalization anyway. But the general attitude is familiar, I’ll bet, and that must have an effect on what happens with young talent. 

Through many years, I’ve played with kid after promising kid on the tennis courts, only for them to vanish as they reached the later years of high school. One returned not long ago and hit with me, his game now riding solely on misty 15 year-old memories and his middle expanding faster than mine. 

I can’t claim he would have been the next Rafa Nadal, but certainly he lost any chance he might have been when he gave up playing regularly. “I wish I had stuck with it," he said to me with a wistful smile. “My dad wouldn’t let me." (The dad himself is a regular on the courts). 

On the other hand, there is another kind of relationship to sports that we hear of from time to time too: parents who make huge sacrifices to turn their kids’ aptitude for a sport into a career. Money, time, family life, all of it becomes grist to the mill that churns out hope vested in the child. 

The father of an Indian tennis star once told me about pouring his entire provident fund savings into funding the son’s training in Barcelona. No, this wasn’t the next Rafa Nadal either, but the father looked delighted—rightfully so—at what his son had achieved. 

There are other parents like that in tennis—so much so that it is something of a cliché by itself—and no doubt in other sports too. 

What about elsewhere?

Consider this story. A man trains in computer science. He does well in his college and university courses, finds them stimulating, enjoys the challenges. He then embarks on a career in the field, and within a few years has earned a substantial measure of recognition, reward and respect. 

It all goes swimmingly for perhaps ten years. Then, just as a lark, he tries his hand at writing. He likes it so much that he does it again, then again, and eventually gives up the software—there go his prospects of becoming the next Steve Jobs—to become a full-time writer.

With some embellishment, that’s my story. Yes, I got a substantial taste of the software industry and some idea of what it would take to really excel in it. While I enjoyed my time there, in the end I decided it wasn’t for me. 

But what if it was? What if I have second thoughts about the change, now that it’s too late to change back? What if I begin wondering about the heights I might have reached in software, if I hadn’t got out after several years?

So as I watched Dangal, I found myself thinking: what if I decide that since I didn’t get to the top in software, I will drive my kids there? 

That is: Wake them every day at 5am and push them through several hours of coding. Refuse them the pursuits—sports, movies, novels—that might detract from their intellectual advance as software experts. Take them to programming contests and throw them into the fray against far more experienced competitors. Send them to a dedicated software training institute where they live, breathe and eat software alongside others doing the same. Second-guess the professors at this institute and insist that my children follow my instructions to the extent they can. Keep them away from distractions; like when I drag them out of the wedding of a family friend where they go to revel in a break from non-stop computer science.

All right, I never did all this. I don’t know parents who have. (Although as I wrote those sentences, Kota’s coaching class industry, now spreading elsewhere, came to mind.) But I wonder: if I did, and if my child became the next Jobs or Bhatia or Brin, would you applaud me? Would someone make a film about me?

Yet with some embellishment, and of course with software substituted by wrestling, that’s the story of Dangal. 

So here’s what nagged at me as I sat through the film. Do we celebrate a father like this? 

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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