While wrestling in the United States is often nothing more than modern theatrics, wrestling in India remains a legitimate sport that showcases the strength and talent of the competitors.
The 2016 film Dangal ("Wrestling Competition") highlights wrestling in India but offers a twist on the standard sports film.
If you are new to Bollywood, here are 5 reasons Dangal should be on your "must watch" list.
1. Based on a True Story
Dangal is the story of Indian wrestling champion Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) and his eldest daughters Geeta Phogat (Zaira Wasim|Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Babita Kumari (Suhani Bhatnagar|Sanya Malhotra). Under his tutelage, the girls grow up to become international gold medalists in the sport of women's wrestling.
Wrestling is not a popular sport for women in India, especially in the conservative state of Haryana where gender discrimination is normalized. Wrestling is considered a man's game. While women's wrestling in India has been on the rise in last few decades, girls in the patriarchal villages of Haryana were expected only to cook, clean, and raise children.
Aamir Khan shines in this fact-based story of a father to trains his daughters to succeed in a sport dominated by men. But, just as in all fact-based films, some liberties are taken with the tale; however, the underlying story and achievements remain intact. According to Babita:
"Whatever has been shown in the movie is 99 percent truth. Only one percent is fiction to make it more interesting and to add more masala to it."
Fortunately, because the events happened within recent history, there is plenty of documentation to compare against the film. One of the most referenced resources is Saurabh Duggal's book, Akhada: The Authorized Biography of Mahavir Singh Phogat. Read an excerpt here.
2. Parent and Coach
As a father, Mahavir sees talent in his daughters that others might not recognize. He decides to nurture and strengthen it as their wrestling coach.
As a father, Mahavir is portrayed as fulfilling his dream to win India a gold medal in international wrestling through the lives of his daughters. The decision to train his girls as wrestlers is initially one-sided. He doesn't ask his daughters if they wanted to learn to wrestle, he demands it. His daughters grudgingly comply. Often they challenge his decision.
As a coach, he is often portrayed as a hard-hearted control freak. For example, when the girls complain about their long braids getting dirty during training, he gives the girls a buzz cut. When the girls need to build up their strength, he breaks with the family's vegetarian lifestyle to cook chicken for the girls.
At one point in the film, Mahavir explains that it is a difficult line to tread between coach and parent. When the coach is on duty, the father has to go away.
In Dangal, the girls embrace the path their father set them on when they recognize his faith in them and the future opportunity his training could provide. In the end, Mahavir - as both father and coach - is able to proudly celebrate the achievements of his daughters.
3. Challenging Tradition
Mahavir's training methods could be perceived as cruel, but he understood the culture of the sport and the culture of his community. His tactics were designed to provide his girls with the skills they needed to succeed in a sport that challenged their right to be in the ring. In a Huffington Post India, Sonam Joshi writes:
In training his daughters to become wrestlers, Mahavir was not only bringing about a women's wrestling revolution in what has been a traditionally male-dominated sport, but also doing it in a state known for its gender inequality...
Because female wrestlers were not available, his girls had to compete with male wrestlers. Mahavir made sure that Geeta and Babita were prepared with strong wrestling skills to defeat their competitors in the ring and naysayers in society.
The achievements of Geeta and Babita broke the glass ceiling for women wrestlers in India and helped change attitudes toward girls and women in their villages. Four years after her first gold medal win, Geeta recalled the initial years of training.
"The whole village was up in arms. But my father was determined. Slowly once we started winning medals, the mindset changed. I feel it is for us to take the initiative and change the mentality of those who feel that a girl child is a burden on the family."
Their success also led to further international recognition. In 2012, Geeta was the first women wrestler in India to qualify for the Olympics. In a CNN story, Mahavir explained that this achievement was a turning point in his local community.
"Suddenly everyone in the village wanted their daughter to become a wrestler. ...Because of my girls, not only has our village changed, the entire state of Haryana is slowly changing."
Four years later, Babita, her cousin Vinesh, and teammate Sakshi Malik competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Sakshi Malik won a Bronze medal - a major achievement given that India has only won a total of 28 Olympic medals since they first started competing in 1900.
4. A Tale of Strength Told with Humor
The narration, music and interactions of the characters bring honesty and humor to the film.
Mahavir's wife, Daya Kaur (Sakshi Tanwar), is somewhat confused by her husband's choices but supports him and her daughters as they struggle together through training and competition.
Omkar Phogat (Ritwik Sahore|Aparshakti Khurana), the nephew of Mahavir and considered a brother to the girls, narrates the story. Describing Mahavir's coaching style and technique, Omkar offers entertaining insights as the girls learn to wrestle and eventually begin winning competitions. Omkar also shares the unfortunate impact Mahavir's training regime has on his daily life.
Pritam's music, with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, also presents a delightful narrative of events. When the girls are initiated into the difficult training regime of a wrestler, they sing "Haanikaarak Bapu" ("Harmful Daddy"). But soon this narrative is replaced with the swagger of "Dhaakad" ("A Force") as the well-trained girls prove they are formidable competitors. "Dhaakad" is definitely a nominee for a women's empowerment theme song.
5. Dedicated Performers
Anyone familiar with Aamir Khan's body of work knows that he is considered a perfectionist. For the role of Mahavir, he gained and lost a significant amount of weight. For the role of the older Mahavir, he gained around 50 pounds and a paunch to match. Aamir Khan modified his diet and spent significant time exercising to lose weight, build muscle and regain strength.
At the same time, Khan and the actors portraying Geeta and Babita trained six days a week for 8-9 months. They followed the same training routine as the Indian women's wrestling team. Training was tough, but it paid off in authenticity in the ring.
Dangal offers a glimpse into a society and world of sports that western audiences seldom explore, through an inspirational lens that shows what can be achieved through hard work and dedication.
The following playlist features the trailer and making of videos as well as videos featuring the real Geeta and Babita and other women wrestlers from Haryana.
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