Movie Review: Dangal

Certain sports lend themselves better to film than others. Boxing, rugby and football, for example, are full of drama and make for exciting viewing. (RAGING BULL; ROCKY; INVICTUS and THE LONGEST YARD are obvious examples of great films of this subgenre.) Films about running, golf, baseball and billiards are perhaps less exciting to watch on the big screen, though there have been some excellent films about these sports, including CHARIOTS OF FIRE; TIN CUP; FIELD OF DREAMS and THE HUSTLER. So where does wrestling fit in? Probably among the first group, though there haven’t been many good wrestling films over the years, FOXCATCHER (2014) and THE WRESTLER (2008) being the most recent exceptions.

India is not exactly well known in the West for its wrestlers but the country does have a long tradition with the sport that may date as far back as 3000 BCE. At the minimum, wrestling is mentioned in the Ramayana, which is at least a couple thousand years old. But what about women wrestlers? Not so much… until very recently. The film, DANGAL, which, I’m told, is Hindi slang for “wrestling”, tells the true story (with some embellishment for dramatic license) of Mahavir Singh Phogat, a former state wrestling champion who hails from a small village in Haryana in the country’s north. Phogat’s dream was to have a son whom he could coach to become an international wrestling champion. Destiny or genetics, however, had other plans, and he and his wife were blessed with four daughters instead. According to the film, after his two eldest daughters, Geeta and Babita (who were just tweens at the time), beat up two older neighbourhood boys for calling them less-than-flattering names, Phogat realises that women, too, could become world-class wrestlers. With that revelation, he sets out to train the girls with the goal of them one day winning a gold medal for their country at the international level — an achievement that eluded him years before.

Phogot is a man on a mission and he makes darn sure nothing is going to stop him this time around. When he realises that the girls need more protein in their diet, he cajoles his wife, a strict vegetarian, to allow them to eat meat. When he can’t afford the meat, he convinces the local butcher to give him a discount because “everyone will buy [his] meat when the girls start winning their matches”. And when there are no other girls in his district to wrestle with his daughters, he pits them against boys. It’s not long before the girls make their father’s dream their dream too. While some viewers may object to the girls’ harsh treatment, the real Phogot was apparently much tougher on his girls than how he is portrayed here.

DANGAL stars Aamir Khan (LAGAAN; 3 IDIOTS; PK), who may be India’s biggest film star these days. Khan, who is known as “Mr. Perfectionist” in his home country, also produced the film making this a bit of a vanity project for him. However, being the perfectionist that he is, he threw his vanity out the window and gained whopping 59 pounds for the role. That’s serious weight gain at any time but for the then 51-year-old Khan, who stands at 5’4″ and normally weighs 154 pounds, it’s huge! There’s a video on YouTube about his transformation back to fitness that’s well worth watching.

The film benefits from rich performances all around but the real standouts are Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar, who play young Geeta and Babita respectively. Ritwik Sahore is also a delight as their hapless, slightly older cousin, Omkar, who, solely by virtue of being the closest male relative, gets subjected to physical abuse in the ring at the hands of the girls. The wrestling scenes are choreographed extremely well with Khan and all the actresses (both young and old) doing their own backflips and takedowns. Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra, who play the sisters in their 20s, are glamorous Bollywood actresses so kudos to them for literally throwing themselves into their characters.

It wouldn’t be a Bollywood film though without a few musical interludes and at least one high-production song-and-dance number, and DANGAL doesn’t disappoint in that regard. It is a bit excessive, however, with the film running about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be. That being said, it is a very enjoyable film, the unnecessarily melodramatic ending notwithstanding. Since its release last December, DANGAL has become the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time domestically and the fifth highest-grossing non-English language film of all time. In China, it has become the 16th highest-grossing film of all time, and the 8th highest-grossing foreign film to date.

In this summer of female empowerment movies, DANGAL is a worthy addition to the team. Go see it!

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