There is something about a sports film that ends up being an enjoyable watch in spite of the predictability of most films that come under the genre. You have your standard tropes, the grizzled mentor, the talented underdog, the merciless system ever ready to crush their spirits, the smug opponent with a sneering coach, the adrenaline rush of the training montage, and all of it culminating in a nail-biting and eventually mood elevating victory against all odds.
Therefore, when Aamir Khan, who made Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, that would grace any list of the best sports movies ever made in India, announced that his next project would be on the remarkable journey of the Phogat Sisters, Geeta and Babita, backed by their father Mahavir Singh, to Gold Medals at the Commonwealth games, it sounded like an interesting story, and in the light of the fantastic performances by PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar at this year’s Olympics, a timely one as well.
Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) is a former National champion in wrestling, who was discouraged from pursuing a career in the sport by his father due to financial reasons, and dreams that someday, his sons will win a gold medal at an international tournament and make him proud. His dreams are dashed when his wife gives birth to 4 girls one after the other, but soon, he notices that his eldest daughters, Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita ( Suhani Bhatnagar) have the potential in them to be wrestling champions, and sets out to train them with his hapless nephew Omkar (Ritwik Sahore as the younger Omkar and Aparshakti Khurrana as the older).
Time passes, and both Geeta and Babita have grown up to be National Champions (Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra), and when Geeta returns from a stint at the National Sports Academy under a new coach, Pramod Kadam (Girish Kulkarni), lines of conflict are drawn between her and her father, due to her rebellious nature, and his traditional outlook. Can this conflict be settled by Babita, and Mahavir’s supportive wife, Daya Kaur (Sakshi Tanwar), and will Mahavir’s dream of seeing his daughters win a gold medal for India come true?
First things first, director Nitesh Tiwari and cinematographer Setu do an absolutely fantastic job of taking us on a journey through the villages of Haryana. While watching Dangal, one can actually feel the heat and dust of Rohtak and Balali. Add to that the high octane soundtrack by Pritam, with the title track, Dhaakad, Haanikarak Bapu and Gillehriyan making the highest impact on the audience, with full marks for song placement.
The first half of Dangal is top-notch storytelling, where the rural milieu of Haryana, with its khaps, and its patriarchal outlook on the role of women in society is established quite firmly, and we are drawn into this world, a world most urbanites wouldn’t be familiar with. This paired with the absolutely superlative choreography of the wrestling sequences, guided by Kripa Shankar Bishnoi, a former wrestler and Arjuna Awardee, and the scenes depicting the Commonwealth Games and the nailbiting encounters between Geeta and her more accomplished opponents will have the audience at the edge of their seats.
However, where the movie falters is during the second half, where an attempt is made to inject drama where there is none. When the first half moved along so smoothly with every situation turning up in an organic manner, and being resolved in the same way, what was the need to insert a villain whose character is so cartoonish and half-baked, that it nearly derails an otherwise riveting story? In addition to this, the screenplay’s need to show Mahavir’s character as some sort of a noble patriarch, when the audience would have been more than willing to accept him with his flaws, is absolutely jarring.
One must give credit to Aamir Khan for not only throwing himself fully into the role of Mahavir Phogat, but also taking a backseat through large passages of the movie and letting the characters of his daughters take centre-stage. While the screenplay’s hero-worship of his character does lessen the impact, one cannot deny that in certain scenes, the thespian is absolutely matchless. The sequence where he first realizes that his daughters are natural fighters, and watches them fight with a child-like wonder, and the sequence with the wordless phone conversation between him and Geeta, are absolutely spellbinding.
But the real stars of the movie are the 4 girls, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Zaira Wasim, who play Geeta, and Sanya Malhotra and Suhani Bhatnagar who play Babita. Zaira Wasim captures the innocent, yet feisty nature of Geeta perfectly, while Suhani Bhatnagar who plays the naive younger sister acts as the perfect foil. However, it’s Fatima Sana Shaikh who is absolutely stunning as Geeta. A character played with equal parts vulnerability and equal parts ferocity, she grabs your attention in every frame she’s in and dares you to look away. It seems like she’ll be a strong contender, come award season. Sanya Malhotra is absolutely adorable as Babita, and her toothy grin will stay with you long after the movie’s done.
A mention must also be made of Aparshakti Khurrana whose wry narration really ties the movie together, along with his on-screen earnestness, as does Ritwik Sahore who plays the younger Omkar, and creates quite a few laughs. Sakshi Tanwar lets her eyes do the talking as the supportive, yet long suffering wife of Mahavir. Another tragedy of Dangal is how the brilliant Girish Kulkarni is wasted in an absolutely caricaturish role of the National Coach where his instructions seem to be to just do a bad impression of Mahesh Manjrekar.
Overall, Dangal is an attempt by Aamir Khan to apologize for his comments on intolerance, and as far as apologies go, this may not be perfect, but it sure is sincere, and that’s why it deserves a watch.