Film Review: Dangal

Fact-based Hindi drama recounts the story of small-time amateur wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat and his quest to turn daughters Geeta and Babita into world-class competitors.
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Born and raised in Balali, a small town in the northern state of Haryana, promising young athlete Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) made a name for himself competing in regional wrestling matches, a centuries-old tradition in rural India. His ultimate goal was to be the first to win a gold medal for India in the prestigious Commonwealth Games. But without corporate or government financial support, Mahavir yielded to family pressure to find a real job and get married. He hoped for a son he could coach to the success that eluded him, but when his four children were all born girls, it appeared that his dream was dead.

Naturally, it’s not, as recounted in Dangal. It lies dormant until Mahavir’s adolescent daughters Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) get into a dust-up with some rude neighbor boys and beat the bejesus out of them. What if his daughters could succeed where he couldn’t? Everyone thinks he’s crazy, but he exempts the girls from housework and starts training them, building them their own training ring in a nearby field and flouting convention by pitting them against boys because, he reasons, the only way athletes learn is by competing up: If his daughters (played as young adults by Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra) have the heart and skill to hold their own when biology is against them, what could they do on a level playing field?

Dangal’s two-and-a-half hours go by quickly, even without the traditional musical song-and-dance sequences that enliven most Indian commercial films. The film’s drama feels authentic, and not just because it’s based on a true story. All four actresses playing Geeta and Babita are strikingly good, and Khan stands out as the deeply flawed Mahavir. While he’s clearly the film’s hero, director Nitesh Tiwari and his co-writers don’t shy away from the fact that Mahavir—like many parents of world-class athletes—is a harsh taskmaster whose ambitions for his children are rooted in his own disappointments. The lyrics of the perky-sounding song that underscores a grueling early training montage—“Have mercy on us/We are little children”—make it clear that little Babita and Geeta are not—at least initially—pursuing their own dreams. They’re instruments of their daddy’s ambitions, and opting out is not an option.

That said, it becomes clear that their athletic abilities are a way of escaping the circumscribed future of early marriage and motherhood, a suffocating fate dramatized by the wedding of a teenage friend whose only wish is that she weren’t being consigned by her family to a loveless union with a man she’s never even met. The film concludes with images of the real Mahavir, Geeta and Babita and it’s hard not to be stirred by the sisters’ athletic accomplishments in top-level international competitions and their father's role in making those achievements possible.

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