Movie Review: Dangal (2016)

dangal3 Stars (out of 4)

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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 Sheikh — 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.

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40 thoughts on “Movie Review: Dangal (2016)

  1. Paul Smithson

    I absolutely loved it from start to finish. For me it was definitely a 4 out of 4. It had us all (myself, my wife and my 19 year old son) gripped for nearly three hours and I have to confess I shed a tear or two. I can understand what you mean when you say it doesn’t tackle certain ‘troublesome issues’ and I agree, but at the same time it does hit the nail on the head when it comes to other issues such as clearly showing what amazing things women can achieve if they’re given a chance and also issues relating to the people who control sport, not just in India, but throughout the world. It’s not the kind of AK film you can watch again and again, such as 3 Idiots and PK, but it is still a must watch movie I think.

    1. Kathy Post author

      I’m glad you all enjoyed it, Paul! It was so direct in its message that Indian athletics needs to stop settling for the occasional medal and needs to invest in training elite competitors. For as large of a talent pool India has to draw from, it’s shocking that there aren’t any Indians playing in the EPL or that the NBA finally drafted its first Indian player last year. If it takes female Indian athletes to lead the way, so much better! Have a happy Christmas!

      1. Paul Smithson

        Yes. I think that the whole female thing was well played right from the desire not to have daughters and how people feel about that, right through to women winning gold medals. I know there are a lot of countries that are a long way behind India when it comes to women’s rights, etc, but it is still refreshing to see women succeeding on their own terms, which is kind of what happened here, although it could be easily argued that she was still under the shadow of a man, either her father or the coach. Lots to discuss 🙂

        It is interesting how Indian cinema has a liking for female sports movies such as Mary Kom (boxing), Chak Di India (Hockey) and now Dangal (Wrestling).

        And a happy Christmas to you too Kathy and thanks for another wonderful year of Accessbollywood!!!

  2. Shrey

    I guess certain scenes in the movie were added for dramatic effect… this interview of real Geeta and Babita would explain the real situation better. Interestingly they were interviewed by aamir khan…

  3. Sukanya

    Hi Kathy, love your reviews.
    I think I realize why some people(Indians /Non-Indians included) feel that Dangal seems to be sending out an impression that femininity has to be curbed to become a successful wrestler or any other sports player. For some it might seem (ironically) anti-feminist in its approach. But for a girl born in a place like Haryana, India, every day is a struggle…. When a girl is expected to compete in many ways with the boys right from the time she is born. I guess it was necessary to train Geeta and Babita accordingly and so represent those hard facts in the movie. The movie has been true to its real life counterparts.
    A woman has to begin somewhere. If necessary get training by a man/ guru so that later she may become that guru for other girls (or even boys) …. Why not :)…. Isn’t there such a possibility that we will see a movie where Geeta would be coaching her daughter/son in the future…

    1. Kathy Post author

      Thank you, Sukanya! When Kangana Ranaut played a female athlete from Haryana in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, she also sported the same short haircut as Geeta and Babita, so that must be pretty common for girls from that region. It’s de-feminizing, but it also sends a specific message: “I’m an athlete in training, and I’m not looking get married right now.” 😉

      For me, what was missing from the movie was a moment where Geeta said, “I’m not wrestling just to please Dad. I’m doing this for myself.” As the movie is, it’s as though Geeta — who’d already spent 14 years being made to feel guilty for being born a girl — spent over a decade of hard physical training at the expense of friendship and other social milestones just to hear her dad say, “I’m proud of you.” Sure, it’s better than child marriage, but it’s still unfair.

      1. Paul Smithson

        Good point Kathy. That did cross my mind a little too. Maybe the reason was that she DID do it for her father and not primarily for herself. From what I understand family is very important in India and often comes before the individual. I think how you word it is correct. There needed to be a moment where Geeta said she didn’t do it ‘just’ for Dad. That word ‘just’ is small but important.

        1. Kathy Post author

          Thanks, Paul. “Just” would’ve given Geeta some ownership over her destiny, even if she was mostly motivated by fulfilling her father’s dream for her.

      2. Rigyal

        I think when Geeta lost her first fight and then went up to her father to say, “When is the next fight?” was the moment the movie made it clear that Geeta wasn’t just wrestling to please her father; but wanted it for herself. “I am proud of you,” is something every son/daughter wants to hear from his/her parents, so their entire journey of becoming wrestlers is not necessarily predicated on that.

        But I agree with the rating of this film. For me, there were a few flaws in the movie which ruined the movie a little bit for me. I don’t understand the rational behind portraying the Australian wrestler in such a negative light, she obviously didn’t make any derogatory comments about Geeta in real life. It almost felt like a cartoon. And the biggest disappointment for me was how the national coach was portrayed. I don’t know if his character is based on a real life person or not, but it requires suspension of disbelief to actually consider a national coach being so clueless about the sport he’s supposed to be an expert at. What’s more frustrating is that the mistakes could’ve been so easily avoided. Dangal could so easily have been the best film of the year – I still think it’s a very good film, but it could have been India’s equivalent to Rocky.

        P.S – Aamir Khan was absolutely incredible in this film, didn’t break character once. One of his best performance ever.

        1. Kathy Post author

          That’s a really good observation, Rigyal. At that moment, Geeta stops wrestling because she’s being forced to and starts wrestling by her own choice. The best thing about Aamir’s superstar status is that he earned it without having to create an “Aamir Khan” character that he plays in film after film (at least that’s the case for his work over the last ten or fifteen years). He’s able to disappear into characters in a way that Salman and SRK can’t.

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  5. Sameeran Rao

    This is one of the best reviews of the movie I’ve read. Good job man. The movie uses patriotism to justify Mahavir’s imposition of his dreams on his daughters, and praises him for not being like other fathers in their community who are only bothered about marrying away their daughters. But what it glosses over is that even if he is letting them dream, they are only allowed to have one dream, that of being wrestlers, weather they like it or not. Disney to be blamed huh?
    Also check out my review of the same here
    https://themoviecourt.wordpress.com/2016/12/24/dangal-review/

    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, Sameeran. I liked this quote from your review: “I was also not very comfortable with justification the movie offers for Mahavir being a father who imposes his dreams on his daughters, it felt shockingly patriarchal, especially for a movie about women empowerment.” — Kathy

  6. moviemavengal

    Kathy, I also appreciated the lesson in the movie about the point system in wrestling! It made the later match scenes much easier to follow. I agree with you — the movie is solid, but it didn’t blow me away. My son has been working this holiday week at the movie theater you and I both go to — and he said Dangal has been getting big crowds, and even sold out on Christmas day. It’s a good family movie for the holidays.

  7. samarth

    thnx, another female oriented sports movie Bend It Like Beckham (2002) terrific one.same cup of tea. Indian sikh (Parminder Nagra) and Brits (Keira Knightley) played soccer girl. its fusion of clash culture, boyishness, comedy fun, hope, disappointment, energetic refreshing Wonderful Surprises Delightness . i suggest u plz review it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0286499/reviews?start=30

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  9. Harkirat Singh

    Hi Kathy,
    Been reading your reviews for quite a long time… and I love them. I’d just like to point out a few things here, regarding this movie- 1) Yes, girls from that region do sport short hair, as a sign of being an athlete.
    2) To me, Mahavir’s unilateral decision to make his daughters wrestlers, needs to be looked at from a cultural context- Worship of physical strength and a disdain for girl child is very much prevalent in Haryana, especially in communities engaged in wrestling. Even a man who is not physically strong is disdained in these places… So, for the girls to matter in a community like this, wrestling was the way to go. Also, that part about Mahavira’s own dream. As you’ve seen in 3 idiots, some Indian parents can be quite ‘involved’ when it comes to deciding what their children should do.
    3) We are talking about a real life scenario, and real life is imperfect. So even though the movie is about women empowerment… we certainly can’t expect imperfect humans to find solutions to social problems in a perfect way. And thats what got reflected on screen.

    1. Kathy Post author

      “As you’ve seen in 3 idiots, some Indian parents can be quite ‘involved’ when it comes to deciding what their children should do.” — Some stereotypes exist for a reason, right Harkirat? 🙂 LOL Thanks for being a loyal reader!

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