Again, Aamir gifts India with a movie in Christmas and proves why he continues to be the Santa donating gifts in the form of a few hours of magic, yanking your earthly problems out of your mind space for 150 minutes and taking you on an adrenalin ride and making you believe that life, as bleak as it might be, when looked at purely as ups and downs of moments and emotions attached to them, can be livable and be looked back at with sighs and smiles, albeit in different doses. If life were a vehicle, Aamir the driver arranges a journey in which he packs characters that are real, earthy, smelly, and sweaty and lets them be; with him interjecting, commanding, demanding, talking, cajoling – all the while, only as an interlocutor: Throughout, the film is about those moments and characters that are part of Aamir’s Mahaveer Singh Phogat’s life, and they remain so. Aamir remains the root of the movie, but only as the root, always buried beneath but having the huge heart to dirty oneself in mud but let the viewers/audiences/people enjoy the tree, the rings, the leaves, the twigs, the branches, and of course, the shade.
Dangal is a massive achievement since it consensually consummates a rare marriage between serious issues of gender inequality and cinematic treatment. The bridge between entertainment and issue-based stories is a serious one to effectively construct but here, it’s one great construction. Dangal took me back to my days with my grand father, who was an accomplished multi-language writer and who would tell me stories every night after dinner, in our family verandah, mainly about Hindu mythologies (he was a master in Sanskrit) and stories regarding kings, queens, ascetics, with ‘rakshasas’ in tow of course. The main thing I looked forward to, and the one I never failed in experiencing, was entertainment and eliciting highs and lows of emotions whenever he narrated those stories. Any complexity in the story; be they of emotions or of constructs, would never be lost to me: And that was his victory in storytelling; not my intelligence in understanding it.
That’s what director Nitish Tiwari and his team of writers accomplish here. The visuals always embellish the writing here and not otherwise. Amitabh, of course, IS the lord of ‘masala’ introductions in Hindi cinema (sorry, couldn’t resist bringing him in), but Aamir’s middle-aged introduction with a chiseled body watching a game of wrestling and then defeating a state champion—as the 1988 Seoul Olympics is broadcast in the background—and then wearing his shirt on while the title-credits roll is a pure masala moment, accomplished with a rousing soundtrack that is pure ecstasy-rush. (The other one I cannot forget, of course, is the one in Haider for Irrfan right before the intermission.) The credits then roll on with ‘akhadas’ being shown along with all the activities that go on in making a wrestler out of a potential. Through the girls’ cousin Aparshakti Khurana’s voiceover, the film takes us through the journey of the sisters, mainly focusing on Geeta Phogat till her winning gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Babita, her sister, continues to stay in the background till the end because Geeta is the one competing at the international level.
Ultimately, the story is of Geeta winning an international medal after successive defeats at that level. Everyone is a supporting character, be it Mahaveer’s wife played with restraint by Sakshi Tanwar, the cousin, the chicken-supplier, or even her coach at NSA in Patiala.
I wouldn’t want to write much about the ‘trajectory’ of the movie since that is something to be experienced and enjoyed. Everybody knows the ‘wikipedia’ story of the Phogat sisters by now, especially after Aamir’s own Satyamev Jayate episode. The main strength of the movie is how it inter-laces folksy humor – (Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, and especially Suppandi and Shikhari Shambhu are the ones that I reminisced about when watching the movie)— with story-line progression. This is a remarkable achievement for the writers. Here’s the difference: In all movies that depict the hinterland, there’s always a ‘glorification’, a ‘pride’ that one doesn’t speak or understand English. And who laughs at such scenes: The English-speaking or English-butchering lucky elite like me. When Dhanush equates forget me with I Love You Too in Raanjhana or when Salman says he can be a ‘soo-soo’ guy to woo Anushka in Sultan, it is clearly addressed to make US (the de-monetization unaffected folks) condescendingly laugh. In such films, the attempt is to make the so-called elite laugh at the ‘attempts’ of the hinterland to ‘equal’ us (which to me as a privileged-person thanks to that phenomenon called accidents of birth is offensive and insulting). But in Dangal, these are the lyrics when Geeta fights ‘men’:
निक्कर और त-शर्ट पहन के आया साइक्लोन
रे निक्कर और त-शर्ट पहन के आया साइक्लोन
लगा के फोन बता दे सबको
बचके रहियो बघड़ बिल्ली से
चंडीगार्ह से या देल्ही से
तनने चारो खाने चित्त कर देगी
तेरे पुर्ज़े फिट कर देगी
डाट कर देगी तेरे दाँव से बढ़ के
पेंच पलट कर देगी
चित्त कर देगी, चित्त कर देगी
In whatever Haryanvi twang one uses English words like T-shirt, cyclone, or even the word Nikkar, there is a ‘context’ to it by extrapolating it to the Khap-infested Haryana patriarchal mind-set. There is a meaning to those scenes when the girls are made to wear ‘nikkar’; when they complain about not being comfortable running wearing ‘salwar-kameez.’
Going back to what I mentioned about the experience of listening to stories my grandfather narrated to me, I need to re-iterate, it is that singular strength of this movie. Narrating serious events through comical situations or every-day life situations is not an easy feat: That’s where Chaplin scored, and that’s where even here, Nitish Tiwari scores. (I hope nobody is offended; I am NOT comparing Chaplin to Tiwari, but it’s just the thought-process): Some people have the knack of explaining complex life philosophies through simple truths. That one scene contrasting a girl’s life after marriage to Geeta and Babita’s regimen is testimony to the fact: Or the fact that meat is required if you need to compete at international levels— (of course, Javagal Srinath was a fantastic masala-dosa bowler – but as per Phogat, one needs to eat meat or chicken or whatever to give you the requisite protein). It is very humorously conveyed here and such cinematic moment-to- moment depictions are the film’s success: Or the fact that Mahaveer watches and disciplines/tutors Geeta by watching her lost-matches in a seedy theatre where the owner is made to believe that exotic porn movies made with high production values from Atlanta or Jakarta are being watched: Or the wonderfully hilarious scene where each and everyone in the village is an expert on reproductive science and especially the ‘proven’ way to give birth to a baby-boy and not a girl-child. There’s a scene when Geeta wins her first medal. The entire village is celebrating, even the men who ridiculed or were skeptical are dancing away. The director cuts to a shot of an old tooth-less woman who, hesitatingly as well as enthusiastically, blesses her and wishes her good luck: A fantastic scene that, a minutiae, but one that conveys a myriad of emotions of a woman who is just waiting for her death. Did she desire to become Geeta Phogat – or an individual woman of strength— in her younger days? Or is she still confused with the messy churning of traditions and personal desires?
Coming to comparisons with Sultan, surprisingly, Dangal managed to make me completely forget Sultan and hammered my mind the world of a difference that exists between Aamir as an artist, a star-actor and Salman as a super-star. There is a world of difference between these two films thematically, and if Salman, when not drunk, would concur with me immediately. Of course, there are some negatives in this film. The chicken-vendor story is a direct throw-back to Sultan’s Kukreja cookers. The dialogue between Phogat and Geeta regarding women’s emancipation from cooking and baking before her finals is again a copy-paste of Shah Rukh’s from Chak De India — (which of course, is a re-working of Miracle– – but Shah Rukh’s was much more impactful). The second half, technically, for about a period of 10 minutes, does seem stretched, especially since they are coming on the heels of Sultan’s MMA matches. However, the semi-final match with her opponent from an Kenya is a thrilling ride in terms of cinematic execution. The primary one, of course is the one between Geeta and Mahaveer when the all-human emotions creep over. It’s NOT at all a match of strength or wit; it’s just a tussle amongst a myriad of confused emotions of a father’s jealousy, his insecurity, his age, the daughter’s exposure to a new world of fun and enjoyment, her new-found freedom, her own-way of rebellion against a father who comes-off as a dictator. And to the folks that would obviously complain about parents imposing their failures or unfulfilled-dreams on their children, just watch Phogat massaging the girls’ legs and his consequent conversation with his wife.
Regarding the performances, finally, it’s the girls that, both as kids and young-adults, tug at your heart-strings. They are fantastically devoted to their acts: But to me, it is Aamir all the way who wins the show. Why? Just look at the pitch of his performance. He is fantastic whether he is the disciplined and dictatorial father or whether he is someone begging a sports-official to provide some funds. (Fine directorial tactic that! In that scene, when Mahaveer finally, albeit in a controlled-fashion, loses his cool and tells the official that it’s because of him that talents in India suffer, the man simply gets up from his chair and says that he is ready to get up from his chair! “Could you please, then, Mr. Phogat, have some ‘aloo-roti’ with butter”? What a great thoughtful touch that is, in under-lining status quo.) Or the scene when Geeta loses international matches and Aamir so hesitatingly – just as he frustratingly takes time in his real life to approve scripts – just waits, and waits, and waits, and finally answers the phone with a ‘Haan’ to his daughter. I, of course, am biased here since I am an emotional-introvert and it moved me to tears but it’s impossible to lose the hidden love and the sense of belonging in that scene. I can go on and on and on writing about this one: But that would be my failure as a writer/reviewer. If I cannot encapsulate in few words that a mammoth of emotions that’s on display in this film, I need to take a back-seat.
Have a free-mind, and savour this film. It is again Aamir as an artiste and an actor that succeeds: As I said before, he is the root, and the root is always muddy, but the one that gives varied hues and colours of life. That this man Aamir just doesn’t care about super-stardom is evident; and that’s what folks like us care about him.