Walt Disney Pictures’ stamp is all over Dangal, the true story of a father’s quest to fulfill his own dreams of wrestling gold through his daughters. The movie is eminently watchable entertainment for the whole family.
Dangal is based on the life of Mahavir Singh Phogat, played in the film by Aamir Khan. The story begins in 1988, after Mahavir has shelved his own desire of parlaying his national wrestling title into success on the international stage. A recurring theme in the film is India’s failure to compensate or cultivate international-caliber athletic talent, forcing athletes like Mahavir to abandon their sports in favor of stable jobs.
Mahavir’s one hope is that his wife, Daya (Sakshi Tanwar), will give him a son he can raise to be an Olympic champion. When Daya births a girl, Geeta, Mahavir’s disappointment is so deep that the entire town becomes obsessed with folk remedies for begetting male children. When Daya births a second girl, Babita, it’s as though she’s let down all of Haryana, not just her husband. By the time Mahavir’s fourth consecutive daughter is born, he’s abandoned his dreams entirely and metamorphosed into a pot-bellied salaryman.
This obsession with a male heir is played for laughs, but it’s hard not to feel for Daya, Geeta, and Babita. Mahavir isn’t cruel to them, but his disappointment surrounds him like a cloud. It would be hard to live in a home with someone who only sees you as a reminder of what you’re not.
It’s clear that Mahavir doesn’t really see his girls for who they are, because only when they get in trouble for beating up some local boys does he realize that they could become Olympic wrestlers themselves. He immediately institutes a rigorous training program, drafting the girls’ cousin, Omkar — the movie’s narrator and comic relief — as their unwitting sparring partner.
Because Dangal is a Disney co-production, it’s guilty of glossing over issues that might bog down a family entertainer, as several of Disney’s American sports movies have been accused of doing in recent years. Mahavir — and, by extension, the film as a whole — has no regard for his daughters’ emotional welfare. Part of his training regimen requires Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) to cut their hair short and wear boys’ clothing, sublimating their femininity right as they become teenagers, as if adolescence isn’t already hard enough. The movie tries to absolve Mahavir of guilt with a scene of the girls’ 14-year-old friend being forced into an arranged marriage, as is that’s the only alternative.
Geeta shows real promise as a wrestler, making it to the national athletic academy as she hits adulthood. Her exposure to a world that doesn’t adhere to her father’s ascetic rules sets up an in-ring competition between the two that is the movie’s most powerful moment. Khan and Fatima Sana Shaikh — who plays Geeta as an adult — are tremendous in the scene.
Perhaps the best endorsement of Dangal is as a wrestling tutorial. A sequence of Mahavir explaining to his charges the way points are awarded in international competitions pays off later, as the final thirty minutes are just tournament footage.
The tournament footage is beautifully framed, showing the audience the points accrued or time remaining in the round at critical moments. The editing gives a clear sense of the stakes and allows the audience to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired throughout the film. It’s nice to come out of a movie feeling smarter than before.
Despite a failure to address certain troublesome issues, Dangal is ultimately a heartwarming story. It’s appropriate for all ages, and nicely paced to hold the attention of younger audience members. If nothing else, you’ll leave the theater with a new appreciation of the sport of wrestling.