There are many rousing moments in Nitesh Tiwari’s “Dangal” (Hindi slang for the wrestling arena), but perhaps the one that best exemplifies the film and its characters is the delightful track “Haanikarak Baapu” (Dangerous father). In it, a father pushes his teenage daughters to train as wrestlers, waking them up at the crack of dawn, keeping them away from their favourite food and TV shows so that they can excel in a sport they have never played before.
It could have been a sombre moment in the film, but lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya brilliantly turns it around by injecting wry, rustic humour that is sure to make the grumpiest audience chuckle. This thread of humour runs throughout the film and elevates the viewing experience, making it more than just a chronicle of Mahavir Singh Phogat’s obsession with producing champion wrestlers.
Phogat braves ridicule, gender biases and the complete lack of infrastructure in his village of Balali in Haryana to forge ahead and make his children achieve what he never managed to do – win a gold medal for India at the international level.
His POA is simple and his modus operandi brutal. Geeta and Babita, until then carefree teenagers who love dressing up and sleeping in, cannot fathom what suddenly caused their otherwise placid father to turn into a despot, but are also not conditioned to question the man of the house. Their mother Daya (Sakshi Tanwar) mildly protests against her husband’s improbable plan, raising her voice only when he suggests cooking chicken in their vegetarian household.
There are moments in the film when Mahavir does come across as a despot – a man who doesn’t even stop to consider what his children want. But Tiwari and his co-writers (Shreyas Jain, Piyush Gupta and Nikhil Mehrotra) redeem him immediately. In one powerful scene, Geeta and Babita are cribbing to a classmate who is about to get married. “When a girl is born here, the only thought is to teach her household work and get her married off at 14. At least your father is thinking about you,” the girl tells them.
It is one of many pivotal moments in the film, after which Geeta and Babita change their perspective and start to willingly participate in the journey that will ultimately earn them sporting glory. It is also to the credit of Tiwari’s perfectly cast ensemble that he manages to make the journey compelling. When the story focuses on the internal dynamics between Geeta, Babita and Mahavir, it is a delight to watch.
Up until the last 20 minutes of the film, Tiwari leaves little room for mistakes. And then, like an expert driver who suddenly loses control of his car, Tiwari throws it all away in the climax. The characters bandy about big words, jingoism comes into the picture, and the film reaches its lowest point with a scene involving a caricaturish villain. Try as he might, Tiwari is unable to resist the temptation to inject that one bit of Bollywood-style drama. In doing so, he sullies what would have otherwise been a pristine effort at making a true-blue sports film.
If you can somehow mentally erase the climax, then “Dangal” has so much to offer. The performances, especially by Zahira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar, who play the younger Geeta and Babita, are outstanding. They eclipse the actresses who play their grown-up versions. Ritwik Sahore deserves special mention for his role as the girls’ cousin Omkar, not just for his deadpan acting but also because he gets the best lines.
Tiwari and cinematographer Sethu Sriram focus on every miniscule detail of wrestling. The sequences are wonderfully shot and choreographed, so much so that it is difficult to believe the actors aren’t full-time wrestlers. And at the centre of it all is Aamir Khan. He plays Mahavir with practiced authority and impeccable timing. Just like every other film he has done of late, Aamir is the messiah here, the man who knows best and is here to tell lesser mortals which direction their life should take. When it comes to wrestling, or education, or religion, Aamir Khan knows best. After watching “Dangal”, it is difficult to argue with that.
UPDATE: This post was edited to clarify that Sethu Sriram is the film's cinematographer