“Dangal” is Disney India’s big Christmas bet, and the Aamir Khan wrestling drama starts strong. The characters are sketched with the kind of patience that can only come from a place of confidence. There are enough crowd-pleasing moments to fill an entire summer blockbuster. The soundtrack is brash and exhilarating; the songs here will dominate many workout playlists in the new year. The social commentary is not subtle, but it is forthright and consistent.
What a shame about that second half. It is rare that a film manages to undo so much of its groundwork so thoroughly in so short a span of time. The creative decisions made here amount to self-sabotage.
“Dangal” is based on the true story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler from the northern Indian state of Haryana that is notorious for having a terrible sex ratio (per the latest census, 879 girls to 1000 boys) and rampant cases of female feticide and child marriage. Despite prevailing social norms, familial opposition, and institutional barricades, Mahavir (Khan) has coached his daughters, Geeta and Babita, to become wrestlers. As the film begins, the two have gone on to win international acclaim, bagging gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and 2014.
“Dangal” would have been dead on arrival if its wrestling sequences were not satisfying on a primal level. The coach from India’s junior women’s team tutored the cast in wrestling, and the results are visible in every jaw-dropping showdown. Director of photography Sethu Sriram’s camera captures the agony on the combatants’ faces and the grains of sand dislodged by their prowess. The first major encounter, in a raucous village fair setting, outdoes anything found in last year’s “Creed.”
The film is of a piece with Khan’s reputation of infusing some commentary in his projects, be it against India’s brutal schooling environment — which he explored in his sole directorial venture “Taare Zameen Par” — or a rogue’s gallery of India’s vices (the focus of his television show “Satyamev Jayate”). The marketing for the new film, which has exploited the cross-channel synergy that only a behemoth like Disney can bring, has incessantly highlighted the girl power inherent in this story. It’s undeniable that “Dangal” — sure to be the year’s biggest Indian movie both domestically and internationally — will encourage a national conversation about females and sports.
Its gender politics, however, is deeply problematic. The overarching protagonist and decision-maker in the film is neither Geeta nor Babita but their father. The film portrays an extremely subservient version of feminism where female empowerment can only arrive with male support. Using a devious sliding scale, the script equivocates Geeta’s independence with her disobedience. She doesn’t just enjoy fleeting glimpses of relaxation while watching a movie or indulging in a street snack; she also mocks her father’s training techniques and belittles him to her mother. When her performance suffers and she comes back for forgiveness, what follows is not a moderate refinement but an all-or-nothing reversal. To make the film palatable to mass market audiences, “Dangal” packages its feminism inside — and beneath — filial piety. This dangerous strand hits its nadir towards the end of the film when, in a straight-faced scene, Mahavir mansplains the societal importance of Geeta’s victory to her.
Much has been made of Aamir Khan’s remarkable transformation to play the middle-aged, overweight Mahavir. His lumbering paunch and unseemly frame are the best type of special effect; they blend in with the film’s universe instantly. One is left hoping that other Bollywood superstars would similarly give themselves over to the demands of their roles.
The cast’s standout, however, is child actor Zaira Wasim, who portrays Geeta as a young girl. Wasim’s eyes carry an intensity that foreshadows Geeta’s obliteration of her rivals inside the arena. But the way she giggles at a joke or groans at being woken for training remind us that she is, after all, still a child. It’s her performance that gives the film’s first half such unequivocal power. When she grows up, the film can’t move on.
Still, “Dangal” offers just the right formula for a box office hit, and aims to please so often it can’t help but succeed. Audiences will marvel in its first-rate fight choreography, a rich soundtrack, and excellent child performers. It might be just enough for them to excuse that second half.
“Dangal” is now playing in select theaters.