December 23, 2016
Cast: Aamir Khan, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Sakshi Tanwar, Zaira Wasim, Suhani Bhatnagar, Girish Kulkarni, Ritwik Sahore, Aparshakti Khurrana
director: nitesh tiwari
A national-level wrestler forced to give up his dream becomes obsessed with training his daughters to accomplish what he couldn’t: win gold for the country.
dangal is a good movie that works on two levels. it’s the kind of inspirational sports movie that profitably employs all the tropes of the genre to deliver an exhilarating experience for the viewer. it also makes a strong feminist statement that girls are as good as boys (if not better) in what has traditionally been the domain of men.
that predominantly male bastion extends not only to the contact sport in question, but also to haryana, where this true story takes place; a culture so entrenched in patriarchy that neighbors offer helpful advice on producing a male heir for parents who have given birth to multiple daughters.
The film is concerned with the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, a former wrestler and father of four girls from a small town called Belali, who trained his eldest daughters, Geeta and Babita, to triumph on the world stage. Gray-haired, paunchy, and rarely cracking a smile, Aamir Khan practically disappears into the character of Mahavir, a tough foreman who puts the girls to the test, ignoring his and his wife’s protests.
mahavir is equal parts determined and unmistakably selfish, practically robbing girls of their childhood, denying them normal pleasures in his obsession with discipline and his quest for excellence. it’s a tough area to explore and a grittier movie could have gone that route, but since this is practically a biopic, the script avoids asking any uncomfortable questions. what we get is a line, at the end of the movie, where mahavir acknowledges that the only flaw in her daughters is that her father is a madman.
Co-written and directed by Nitesh Tiwari, dangal scores highly for authenticity. the rigorous training the girls are put through, the giggles of a chauvinistic society, the run-ins with sports authorities, and the thrilling nail-biting matches ring true without a hint of artifice. there are also layers, if you look for them. one of the best parts of the movie is a scene where mahavir and geeta fight. At first glance, it’s just that: father against daughter. but simmering below the surface is so much more.
It’s these hidden but easy to find layers that separate dangal from your standard sports film. The script digs deep to give us genuinely moving moments like Geeta’s discovery of her own femininity and her first brush with guys outside of the Akhada, not to mention her sheer amazement at the effect a Hindi romantic movie can have on a hostel full of girls.
Very often I find my fellow critics saying that when they’ve loved a movie, they’re willing to overlook its occasional blips. Me too, but I’ve found that with near-perfect movies, the smallest flaws stick out like a sore thumb and nag me endlessly. the same is true here. I couldn’t get over the trashy characterization of the national sports academy coach (played by a grossly underused kulkarni girish) who is portrayed as a one-note villain. I also couldn’t for the life of me accept a twist in the film’s final act that was completely unconvincing. And don’t even get me started on the sneaky way they throw away, no wait, milk, our patriotic sentiments by throwing in the national anthem at the end.
but frankly, dangal succeeds despite these missteps, and a big reason for that is the performances. Tiwari, who previously co-directed Shout Party and directed Bhootnath Return, once again gets energetic, winning performances from her younger actors, in this case from Suhani Bhatnagar and particularly by zaira wasim. who play the younger incarnations of Babita and Geeta respectively.
A word here too for Ritwik Sahore, who plays his cousin Omkar, and the source of much fun in the film, courtesy of his role as a reluctant training partner to the girls in their growing years. aparshakti khurrana plays the eldest omkar, and he’s also fantastic, bringing humor to unlikely places.
sakshi tanwar as mahavir’s wife and sanya malhotra as the eldest baby girl are well cast and pull off their roles to perfection. Some of the heavy lifting is handled by fatima sana shaikh, who plays the elder geeta with just the right balance of youthful innocence and steely determination. Your heart goes out to Geeta, and her conflict is entirely palpable as she must choose which approach to take when she arrives at the Commonwealth Games.
but at the heart of the film is an incredible performance from aamir khan, who not only plays mahavir, but becomes him. There is not an ounce of vanity in Aamir’s portrayal of this overweight, aging man, and you understand what drives him and forgive him for his methods. Beneath the tough exterior, Aamir imbues Mahavir with a cuteness that occasionally slips away.
dangal is not a perfect movie, but few movies are. it’s too long at 2 hours and 41 minutes, and it’s plain and simplistic in places. but it’s a solid and satisfying watch, a well-crafted look at what went into the making of two sporting champions. it’s a movie that makes the heart swell… when it’s not beating with all the excitement of the fights. I take four out of five.
(this review was first aired on cnn news18)