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Dangal review: Aamir Khan and his daughters score a win

Release Date: 23 Dec 2016 / 02hr 49min

Cinestaan Rating

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Suparna Thombare

Director Nitesh Tiwari’s wrestling film raises the bar for sports films in India.

In Dangal, Mahavir Phogat utters the word 'shabash' only once his life's dream is fulfilled. And that's exactly what you will want to say to team Dangal when you walk out of the theatre at the end of the film. Despite minor hiccups, Dangal is a sports biopic you wouldn't want to miss.

Dangal is the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan), a former national-champion wrestler from a small village in Haryana, and his dream to see his daughters Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) win gold medals for the country. It takes him a while to get over the disappointment of not having a boy (he has four daughters), but when he realizes that his girls are as capable of playing the sport as boys, there is no stopping him.

But to achieve that dream, Mahavir not only has to train his daughters, but also fight perceptions and external opposition. The girls’ short hair, shorts and practising the male-dominated sport raise many eyebrows in the village, where people feel he should be teaching them kitchen skills and preparing them for marriage instead. As they say, however, nothing speaks like success. Since there are no other girls in their village or nearby villages whom Geeta and Babita could challenge, Mahavir decides to make them wrestle with the boys. Once Geeta beats the boys at their game, she earns the respect of the village.

Dangal is as much a sports film as a lesson in feminism — equal opportunity and treatment of women and empowering them by giving them wings. Mahavir says, “I want to make my daughters so able that they will go to see and choose boys in marriage instead of the boys choosing them.”

Placed in Haryana, which is known for its gender disparity and poor sex ratio, Dangal turns into a story of a minor revolution.

At times, you may feel conflicted about the father's stubbornness in imposing his dreams and ambitions on his daughters. Then again you want to applaud him for fighting the ridicule and the societal norms to give his girls equal opportunity in a male-dominated sport and society. Where the script fails is in giving us deeper insight into where Mahavir’s radicalism stems from.

In the beginning of the second half, the pace slows down as a conflict between Mahavir and Geeta takes over, but as things progress you realise it adds the much-needed arc to both the characters.

Most of the second half is spent on the wrestling mat. Tiwari takes you through every detail of every match, and the beautifully, authentically and accurately choreographed bouts, shot deftly by Setu, slowly absorb you, making you cheer for the girls. In terms of depiction of a sport, Dangal is brilliant, and leaves other releases of the year, like Saala Khadoos, Sultan and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, far behind.

The screenplay (by Nitesh Tiwari, Shreyas Jain, Nikhil Mehrotra and Piyush Gupta) is tight and impressive. The reaction of people to Phogat's revolutionary methods is laced with humour, while still making a strong point about how we view the girls in our country. Where it slips slightly is in the repetitiveness of the second half and the melodrama in the climax.

Every story needs a villain and in this story, while it is the societal opposition in the first half, it is Geeta’s Patiala coach (played by Girish Kulkarni) in the second half. Once Geeta wins the national championship, she is sent to a sports academy in Patiala to train under a new coach, who urges her to forget all the previous training given to her by her father. This chapter depicts the growth of all the characters. But Kulkarni's character lacks depth and ends up as a caricature, especially in the climax.

Sakshi Tanwar is earnest as someone who is initially sceptical but soon offers her full support to her husband. 

Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra are convincing as the older Geeta and Babita, respectively, especially so on the mat. There is not a moment where you feel they aren't professional freestyle wrestlers. But Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar, who play the younger versions, are just brilliant, making the first half heartwarming and enjoyable. Ritwik Sahore and Aparshakti Khurana (playing the younger and older versions of their cousin Omkar, who is forced into becoming a device of his sisters' training) are a pleasure to watch. 

A salute to Khan for embodying with all his heart, body and mind an ageing father and coach who sacrifices his whole life to see his daughters succeed. Not only is his physical transformation and lack of fear at portraying a pot-bellied older man worthy of praise, but the tough love he portrays and the emotional nuances he brings to the screen prove his range and depth as an actor once again. It will be counted as one of his best performances.

Dangal is a simple and straightforward story of a father and coach who trains his daughters to win gold for India, but it is also an inspirational tale of fighting prejudices, and of the sacrifices, focus and effort it takes to build an international sports hero. 

Reviewed by Suparna Thombare