Dirty Picture Project: Dangal- A truly dhakkad biopic

By Sthavi Asthana and Anushka Sachdev

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Watching Dangal was a truly memorable experience, from the high adrenaline wrestling scenes to the rush of pure pride during the last scene, where Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh) wins the first gold medal in wrestling for the country. It showcases how Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) trained his daughters Geeta and Babita (Sanya Malhotra) to become competitive wrestlers in the backdrop of patriarchal Haryana. The film is a refreshing feminist breakthrough especially when compared to the unfortunate state of contemporary Bollywood cinema. It brings to the fore struggles faced by Indian athletes, especially women athletes coming from a society where sports are seen to be the forte of boys.

Humari betiyaan chhoron se kam hain kya? (are my daughters any less than boys?)

Mahavir was a National level wrestler himself, but had been forced to give up the sport to earn a living, a common enough phenomenon in our country. He had to forego his dreams of winning a medal for his country, but consoled himself with the hope that his son would continue the legacy. But his hopes are dashed when despite several attempts, he fails to father a son. This is where the film so succinctly captures how normal it is to covet sons over daughters, with just about everyone in the village lining up to offer a fail proof ‘totka’ (superstitious remedy) that would guarantee the couple a baby boy. People who brought sweets to offer congratulations would make sympathetic noises and turn away when it is revealed that the baby born was a girl. Even his daughters never questioned why their father wanted a son, why they were not good enough.

However, things change one day when Geeta and Babita beat up two boys for calling them names. Mahavir suddenly realised that even his daughters could carry his dream forward and decided to train them to become wrestlers. This is where we get to see a shift from the ingrained patriarchy. Conditioned to accept established gender roles, Mahavir, and indeed everyone in the village, simply could not imagine that girls could also wrestle. However, once he got the idea, his commitment to their training made him set aside all notions of orthodox ‘modesty’ that was shared by most of the village. This ranged from insisting that his daughters wear the appropriate clothes for their training- t shirts and shorts, to making them wrestle with boys, something that would be considered taboo because of the amount of physical contact required between the contestants. He started to ask “why not” when people told him girls could not become wrestlers, announcing to the world that his daughters were no less than boys.

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In such a situation, would it be right to call him sexist for wanting a son in the beginning? Or was he simply unaware, as is seen when he told his wife “maine toh socha hi nahi…medal toh medal hai, chaahe ladka jeete chaahe ladki” (I never realised, a medal is a medal, whether won by a boy or a girl). The film captures a transformation of perspective in its true sense, when a man from orthodox rural Haryana who was desperate for a son to fulfil his dream, dared to think that why not my daughters!

The haanikarak (harmful) training regimen!

The strenuous training that Geeta and Babita were subjected to by their father has faced a lot of criticism. Some claim that it was borderline abusive, while others questioned the right of the father to foist the burden of his dreams on his daughters, forcing them to endure physical hardship as well as social ridicule.

But the message behind the movie must be kept in mind while critiquing the film. Growing up in such a patriarchal social setup, the concept of opportunity as experienced by the girls would be automatically limited. Their aspirations would be restricted to areas which are traditionally considered appropriate for girls, and it is very unlikely that they would seek to achieve glory in sports on their own, especially a completely male dominated sport like wrestling. In such a situation, some amount of direction would be necessary even if it looks forceful initially.

As for the exacting training, it was no more than the training involved in making any other athlete fit enough to withstand the rigours of competition. The girls eventually began to enjoy the sport and became famous for beating much stronger boys in a sport where physical strength would play such a major role. This would obviously require discipline and commitment on their behalf, something that would be unpalatable to most young children. We must also account for the fact that women seeking to make their mark in a male dominated field must often work harder than men to gain the same amount of respect; they cannot afford to be average. Had the girls not been so proficient in their sport, they would likely have been ridiculed throughout and would not have had a very bright future at all. So, if Mahavir wanted his daughters to break the moulds of society and become wrestlers, he had to train them to win, and winning does not come easily.

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Papa khush nahi honge (Father won’t be happy)

One thing that stood out in the entire movie was the domineering role played by Mahavir, being the father figure in the family. Although a heavy- handed approach might have been acceptable, even necessary when it came to the girls’ training, such behaviour would be less than ideal when it extends to other aspects of the family. Mahavir was the centre of every discussion, had the last say in every argument. He represents the stereotypical father; his daughters are afraid to discuss things with him, opting to approach their mother to act as mediator instead. Their mother too, was seen to defer to his decisions in every matter, and tries to smooth things by telling the girls to avoid acting in ways that would displease their father. The family would literally stand at attention when Mahavir enters the room.

This male centric view does perpetuate stereotypes, but if considered in the context of the type of society the film seeks to represent, it is unfortunately true. The transformation from one generation (their mother- Daya, played by Sakshi Tanwar) to another (Geeta and Babita) -where the mother hardly spoke against her husband, to Geeta wrestling her father, is truly phenomenal. It went from the role of the mother being confined to bearing children and cooking for the family, to the daughters leading independent lives. All of this was solely possible due to the motivation they received from their father and this is what makes the film revolutionary. Mahavir, despite being a stereotypical father and husband, is extremely revolutionary in his actions. However, it was essential to express the original mindset of the family to highlight the transition in his perspective.

The movie successfully passes the Bechdel test. Geeta and Babita have many conversations centred around wrestling which have little or nothing to do with their father. However, it would not meet the requirements of the Makomori test, since the entire narrative of the movie is centred around Mahavir Phogat’s dream of his child winning an international medal in wrestling for the country. But the Makomori test is only a basic test indicating the representation of women in a movie. Passing the test does not automatically make a movie feminist, and similarly, failing it would not make a movie sexist. Dangal may not pass the test but it takes a major step forward by showing women as professional athletes. Such a representation of strong, independent women is of great significance, especially considering the current scenario where most films only portray women in a romantic narrative, or in traditional roles as the mother or wife of the hero.

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The Dirty Picture Project: Shaandaar

[Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi is running the Dirty Picture project that reviews blockbuster Bollywood films from a feminist perspective. Anyone who would enjoy this and is capable of carrying out the work is welcome to join in. Please do write at ccg@nludelhi.ac.in with ‘Dirty Picture Project’ in the subject line if you would like to be a part of the project.]

By Aarti Bhavana

This is the classic fairy tale of an orphan of mysterious origin (Alia, played by Alia Bhatt) who is adopted into a big, rich family, but is hated by the evil mother and grandmother. Of the hunt for Prince Charming: the doting father (Bipin, played by Pankaj Kapoor) waits desperately for a Prince to arrive and free his daughter from her curse of insomnia. Of a grand wedding in which this movie is set, where Alia’s sister’s (Eesha, played by Sanah Kapoor) is set to get married.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaandaar#/media/File:Shaandaar-Official-Poster-2.jpg

The introductory scenes of the characters are defining, as they tell you everything you need to know about them. Unfortunately, these first impressions are quite lasting, as it is all you get from these characters throughout the movie. Full of tropes, some choice ones are:

The Fairytale Princess

First, there is Alia, the whimsical, slightly odd, lead character who seems to have stepped out of the pages of a fairy tale. The kind that names and befriends a frog. And that is exactly how the audience first sees her. As she gets out of the car, she is surrounded by fluttering dragonflies, much like a Disney princess. Her father believes that the only cure for her insomnia is to find her prince, a sentiment she seems to agree with.

Her character has been given the most screen time, yet there is no character development shown over the course of the movie (overcoming insomnia doesn’t count). There is much that could’ve been done to further explore her status as an ‘outsider’ in the family, but the portrayal remains largely superficial. And because there was no other way to force it in, a bikini scene is introduced in a dream sequence where Alia stands on the beach in a tiny bikini, calling for JJ’s (played by Shahid Kapoor) help. Of course, this does not advance, or even affect the plot in any way, but certainly acts as fodder for later discussions about Alia Bhatt’s body. For some, this is the only take-away from the movie.

Even big reveals aren’t dealt with realistically. For the first half of the movie Alia does not know where she came from, or why she was adopted. But just before the interval it is revealed that Bipin is actually her biological father. The bounce-back from this revelation is very quick, as Alia revels in being the ‘illegitimate child’ instead of the ‘orphan’. Again, the movie focuses more on flash and form over actual substance.

Prince Charming

Introducing the wedding planner, fellow insomniac and hero Jagjinder Joginder (or JJ). Right from his first interaction with Alia, he sees her as something fantastical, surrounded by dragonflies or ladybugs every time she appears. I suppose that’s love.

JJ’s character is textbook knight in shining armor, as he rushes to rescue any damsel who appears to be in distress. This is first seen during the title song, when the assistant event planner, Sonia, is harassed by a man on the dance floor. JJ jumps in at once, trying to shield her, and when that doesn’t work, he pushes the man aside. However, since this man was Bipin’s brother, the only thing the family focused on was the fact that JJ pushed him. The bounce-back is astonishingly and unrealistically fast, as there was no focus on Sonia’s reaction and the incident was never mentioned again.

Later that night, our gallant knight spots someone jump into a waterfall. Despite it being evident that the person in the water was swimming, JJ jumps in to ‘save’ them. As it turns out, it was just Alia skinny-dipping, or as she put it, bathing. Much later, in a daydream, Alia imagines a situation where she is in trouble and is rescued by JJ on his steed.

While his bravery is laudable, such a one-dimensional portrayal is problematic as it only reinforces the all-too-common stereotype that the helpless woman needs to be rescued.

The Evil Queen and the King’s Evil Mother

Geetu (played by Niki Walia) and Kamala (or Mummiji, played by Sushma Seth) are introduced as the mother and grandmother respectively, who think of every relationship as a deal and the world as a market. They stay true to this description until the very end. They are very clear about the fact that Eesha’s wedding is nothing but a business deal, a sentiment reinforced several times.

Kamala, the grandmother was truly the villain of the story. Accompanied by eerie music, this wheelchair-bound woman terrified her entire family so much so that they didn’t have the courage to even object when she arranged their marriage as part of business deals. She’s the kind of woman who publicly called Alia ‘anaath’ (orphan) and didn’t think twice about it.

These two women fit the trope of the cold hearted, calculating women to the T. Emotionally manipulative, they use any means necessary to get what they want; in this case, salvaging the family business, as they are currently bankrupt.

While it was refreshing to not be subject to yet another saas-bahu struggle, the one-dimensional nature of these two women grew tiresome. They were only portrayed as selfish, manipulative characters, with a one-track mind: saving the family business at any cost. Their selfishness and coercion knew no bounds, as they happily bartered away their daughter’s (and grand daughter, respectively) happiness for a business deal. One that they clearly hadn’t done their research for, as it turned out in a nice twist at the end, since the groom’s family was also bankrupt. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a sinister villain as much as the next person, but even after taking into account the fantastical nature of the plot, these characters still have no basis in reality. Their characters were never fleshed out beyond the description offered in the introduction.

The Fairytale wedding

Perhaps the only thing shaandaar (fabulous) about this movie was the lavish destination wedding. Gentle, sweet Eesha is the only character shown to develop over the course of the movie. She is engaged to be married to Robin, a self-entitled man who obsesses over his eight-and-a-half pack abs and often fat-shames Eesha. (In fact, fat-shaming is a recurrent theme in this film, as several characters constantly ridicule the bride for her weight.) Robin is of the ‘Hum ladke wale hai’ mentality, which reinforces societal stereotypes of the groom’s side being superior in a marriage.

This was brought up again in the Sangeet song Senti Wali Mental Hai Yeh Choriya. It started out with crass generalization and stereotyping, leading to a very Bollywood-esque battle of the sexes, and ended with Robin publicly humiliating Eesha with personal digs. After being told that the wedding was necessary for his family as they were bankrupt, he offers a fake apology, which is accepted far too easily.

Eesha knows that she is just a clause in a big business deal. But fear of her grandmother, and love for the family prevents her from voicing her protest, despite encouragement from Alia. She constantly tells herself that she’s lucky to have found a guy like Robin who is willing to marry her.

The close bond shared by the sisters, and their conversations are the only reason this film narrowly passes the Bechdel Test, as they briefly talk about other things before returning to discuss men. 

The Forgettable Characters

The airhead twins (presumably Eesha’s cousins) and their SMS acronym-speak offer brief comic relief. But aside from spouting these acronyms once in a while, there is little else to their character. Sonia, the assistant event planner mentioned above, is a fleeting and unnecessary character.

And they lived happily ever after…

After being fat-shamed and treated like a bargaining tool all through the movie, Eesha finally summoned the courage to call off the wedding and declare her autonomy in a powerful scene in the last few minutes. I think there should have been greater focus on Eesha, and her path to living life on her own terms, for hers was the only relatable and realistic character in the entire story.

Mainly, this was a disappointing film as it had the potential to explore vastly different characters, but by choosing flash over substance, the writers leave the audience quite confused over what they saw.