Women-empowering family drama | Sunday Observer

Women-empowering family drama

Well worth the critical acclaim it has received, Dangal’s story of Indian Olympic wrestling heroes Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari is part sports drama, part social commentary on female oppression in India.

Dangal drags on a bit too long but nonetheless, this feel-good sports drama based on true stories entertains and, more importantly, could empower young women to pursue male-dominated industries.

At two hours and 40 minutes, director Nitesh Tiwari’s ambitious film doesn’t just tell the early life story of sisters and Indian Olympic wrestling heroes Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari. It also spends a big chunk of the narrative focusing on their father, Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Indian superstar Aamir Khan)

A former local amateur wrestling champion who was forced to give up his dream of sports glory due to family poverty, the elder Phogat had vowed to mould his future yet-to-be-born son into a wrestling champ. Fate, however, gave him four daughters.

Thinking his dream is dead, Phogat and his family settle into a quaint village life, with the women assigned to cleaning and cooking duties. But when two of the daughters – Geeta and Babita – grow to be aggressive teenagers who frequently get into scuffles with boys, Phogat begins to wonder if there is potential.

But before he can train the two, he needs to convince his wife (Sakshi Tanwar) and fellow villagers that Geeta (Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Babita (Sanya Malhotra) should not be locked into “women duties”. Though his reasoning is self-serving, Phogat effectively becomes a feminist.

The rest of the film serves as part sports drama, part social commentary on female oppression in India, culminating in a championship bout at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

Tiwari wisely shoots the wrestling scenes without resorting to quick cutting, instead pulling back his camera to show the hard work put in by the actresses. The film lingers too long on certain scenes – 20 minutes could be cut without losing much story – but overall it is worthy of all the critical acclaim it has received and the huge box office returns earned in India and China.

Even before the movie was released on the mainland, internet users were eagerly anticipating its arrival, with video clips of Khan preparing for the role making the rounds on social media. They showed him gorging to develop a paunch for his character, and then subjecting himself to intense exercise to produce rippling abs and biceps to portray the protagonist at another stage of life.

Viewers feedback:

Viewers heaped praise on the Indian superstar, calling him ‘India’s national treasure’ and lauding him for his dedication to his art.

Chen Xiaoxia, who said she became a fan of Khan after watching 3 Idiots and PK, took her six-year-old daughter to the 140-minute Dangal in Beijing.

the movie was very long, but there wasn’t a single second in which I felt bored. I laughed and cried and had so much to think about afterwards. The movie is touching on so many levels,” she said.

“Khan’s performance as a strict father reminds me so much of fathers in China, who seldom display their emotions and hide their profound love for their children behind a straight face and tough training.”

Indian culture in their preference for boys over girls also struck a chord with mainland audiences.

“We’re not expected to get married at 14 and be tied up in family chores for life as shown in the movie, but just like these wrestlers, women in India need to work much harder to have the same standing as men in society,” said moviegoer Amy Dattha, an executive at a foreign company in New Delhi.

Some women moviegoers, however, argued the daughters did not in fact gain independence by overcoming the gender barrier, but rather, yielded to their father’s “patriarchal power”.

“The father’s values make one sick, forcing his way of life on his daughters ... The so-called paternal love is nothing but to satisfy his own desires. The movie talks about breaking through the gender barrier, but the prejudice is beyond cure,” another internet user argues. Others defended the film, saying it should be interpreted in the context of India’s traditional culture and values. In India, it is estimated that 47 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18, according to Unicef figures.

“The father has been the subject of ridicule of the whole village for giving the daughters a much better option than marrying young. Those whose criticise think they are wise, but in fact they are as stupid as the villagers who mocked the father in the film,” said a review carried in Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou-based newspaper.

“Those who criticise the film have ignored the social context of India … It might never have occurred to them that in the case of women’s rights, not every area is as sound and advanced as in developed Western countries.”