There have been a string of inspiring movies about empowering girls in sports recently in Indian cinema. Just this year there’s been Sultan and the boxing movie Irudhi Suttru. Dangal is not groundbreaking because it’s about the first women wrestler to win a gold at the Commonwealth games (and then the first Indian woman wrestler to make the Olympics.) What’s groundbreaking is that Aamir Khan plays his age, and shows it.
He’s not the first of the three Khan’s to play a father. Salman was just a father figure in Bajranig Bhaijaan and while Shahrukh Khan played a widowed father in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to little Anjali, he also was still acting like he was still in high school! Aamir Khan took the bold step of actually playing a father of young adult girls with gray hair and a paunch.
An Aamir Khan film is a true event since he is only making at most one a year, but it’s been two years since the blockbuster PK. I’m glad he took the time to make this one right. He’s so method that he gained lots of weight to show the older Mahavir Singh Phogat, and then lost it over months to play the younger wrestler in his prime.
From what I’m gathering some of the true events of the sisters Geeta and Babita and their coach and father Mahavir were changed for dramatic purposes. But the basic outline remains. They lived in a rural village in Haryana, an area that has one of the worst women to men ratios in India. The film shows what the girls’ life could have been — married off by age 14. Mahavir had four girls and no sons, so he decides gold is gold, and will train his daughters to be wrestlers to win gold for India.
They took their time putting this movie together, and the casting is just exceptional. The girls at the young ages are really good young actresses, and the older girls phenomenal. Aamir lived with all four girls that were playing his daughters while they trained in wrestling together. It paid off in a comfortable family relationship with the girls. You can see the warm rapport they have with Aamir on the recent Koffee with Karan episode that aired last weekend.
I loved the structure of the first half, as Aamir decides to train the girls in wrestling after they beat up a couple of boys (as we see in the trailer.) The local wrestling school won’t let the girls train, so he builds his own mud arena for their training. At one point the girls rebel against his strict regimen, and I loved how they impishly reset the time on his alarm clock and so on.
This is a film all about the relationship of a father and his daughters. There is no romance subplot. It’s another wrestling movie like Sultan, but it’s completely different than Sultan. The conflict comes in Mahavir’s unwavering dream of gold medals for his girls and all that he puts them through to give them enough grit to accomplish it.
The second half conflict comes when Geeta reaches a level where she must move to another city to train with the national wrestling team under a new coach. I adored a scene where the other girls on the team introduce her to DDLJ. Geeta’s first visit home is quite bumpy in their relationship, and one of the most gripping scenes in the movie to me is when a quarrel over her new techniques learned from her new coach ends in Geeta and her father wrestling, and wrestling hard. I actually gasped out loud it got so intense.
Since this is a real life biopic, we know the ending, but it’s the journey getting there that is so enjoyable. It’s really an incredible story, and the neighbor I went with said she wants to take her young sons to see it. It’s a great family film. There’s no sex or bad language or violence. It’s not bloody like boxing movies. I was very glad of a nice little scene that explained the point system in wrestling so I could follow along when we got to the big matches. The story is simple, and if it wasn’t real life, would almost be unbelievable that one father could train two girls to be gold medal winners.
Sports movies are really not my favorites, but I found the story really compelling. Aamir is a driving force in the movie, but all four actresses really get to shine on their own, especially newcomers Sakshi Tanwar as Geeta and Fatima Sana Shaikh as younger sister Babita. There’s a plot twist that I won’t spoiler that leads Geeta’s father to not be present at her gold winning match. In retrospect, it was purposeful to show that she wins it on her own merit and grit – not because her savant coach father was yelling what to do throughout the match.
I’m glad they cast unknown actresses in these roles, because I could really just see them as Geeta and Babita. But even Aamir, with so much screen presence truly disappeared into his role as Mahavir. That’s a great actor. He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis in that way, and equally devoted to his craft. I applaud Aamir for getting this film made, as it has a great message, and not just for girls. There are only a few songs, but they are woven into the film seamlessly, and make sense in their place in the movie.