Aamir Khan's Dangal has become a runaway hit but it has also opened up a debate on patriarchy, parenting, and the dreaded F-word - feminism.
Based on the real life story of Geeta Phogat, the first Indian woman wrestler to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, Dangal is without a doubt an inspiring watch, even though the filmmakers have taken liberty with certain facts in order to make the narrative more dramatic. For instance, Geeta Phogat's win at the Commonwealth Games was not quite as last minute as it's shown in the film. And there's no record of Mahavir Singh Phogat being shut up inside a dusty room when his daughter was playing her final match.
Leaving this Bollywoodization aside, Dangal manages to capture the incredible story of a young girl from Haryana (a state which is infamous for its low sex ratio) succeeding at an unlikely sport like wrestling with all the fire that it deserves. But as with any film that has a woman at its centre, we're left wondering if this is a feminist film and if we should really be celebrating Mahavir Singh Phogat, who forcibly chopped off his daughters' hair and made them live his dream.
As a female critic, I often feel like a sourpuss. I watch movies that are so blatantly made from a masculine perspective, their female characters reduced to laughable cardboard cut-outs who behave nothing like women in real life do. I shrink away from comedy that borders on violence in its insensitivity.
I do not share the enthusiasm for films like Remo or Pulimurugan, that have gone on to become superhits, because of the palpable misogyny in them. So, I certainly understand the need to critique popular culture from alternate points of view, including the feminist perspective. I do it often enough myself.
However, I must say that I find the criticism against Dangal for being a patriarchal film quite unwarranted. Yes, the film's promos were all about Aamir Khan and his body-building but how many scenes did the film have that were about this? The narrative devotes barely a few minutes to these scenes and the story quickly moves forward to the two wrestler sisters.
Aamir Khan was the star who promoted Dangal but he isn't the star of Dangal - that role quite firmly belongs to Fatima Sana Shaikh who is even shown to overpower Aamir in a goosebump inducing wrestling bout between an enraged daughter and an insecure father.
The film does show Geeta returning to Mahavir's ways after a period of rebellion when she grows her hair, paints her nails and eats golgappa, but reading this as blind obedience to an autocratic father is to deny the female character her agency. Even as children, Geeta and Babita resist Mahavir as much as they could, until the time they make the decision to take wrestling seriously. When Geeta decides to go to the National Sports Academy for her coaching though she knows this might hurt her father, it's because she has come to own the dream of winning a gold medal.
And when things don't go smoothly in her career, it's Mahavir the coach whom she turns to after she realises that she's losing matches because of the new coach's methods - it isn't Mahavir, her father. Early on in the film, a thoughtful Mahavir tells his wife that it's hard for him to be both their father and coach. He needs to be a hard taskmaster, even a cruel one, if he's to create champions out of the girls.
The inhumanly demanding coach is a stock character in any sports movie, whichever be the gender of the athlete, and Dangal falls in line with this tradition.
Mahavir isn't considered to be infallible - his possessiveness and insecurities are on display. Reading his actions as solely that of a patriarchal figure is unfair, even if you may not agree with his methods.
More than anything else, we need to remember that this is a real life story from Balali, a village in Haryana, which has gone on to become the only village in India to allow women in its wrestling school. This, when even in cities, wrestling is still considered to be a male sport.
Was it necessary for Mahavir to dress his girls like boys in order to make them wrestlers? In a perfect world, no. But in the film, his motives for doing this are quite clear - if the wrestling school will not take in his girls because girls cannot be good enough, he will prove to them that they are equal, if not better than the boys. It's not Judith Butler-approved but it's a visually effective way of shutting up the nay-sayers.
Dangal is primarily a sports movie and I can count on my fingers the number of times I've seen the female body portrayed so beautifully and powerfully. We need films like this (and other flawed ones like Mary Kom and even Mardaani) to remind us that the female body isn't an object to be ogled but can be a dynamic subject. It needs to be done on this scale, with this amount of publicity for that idea to have a chance at seeping into a brain that has been relentlessly assaulted by images of women who are only as worthy as their cleavage.
In fact, Dangal tries so hard to be feminist that it goes out of its way for Geeta to own her victory by adding a melodramatic twist that gets Mahavir out of the way. Yes, we're never allowed to forget that Geeta is Mahavir's daughter but why must we, especially when the film doesn't take away any credit from her? And when the real life Geeta always acknowledges her father's contributions to her victory? Dangal is not a perfect film but then, it is not the story of perfect people. It doesn't have to be for us to appreciate it.
Note: Views expressed are the personal opinions of the author.