As much as I love sports and movies, I don’t quite enjoy sports based movies of India. They are so cliched that they are predictable by the scene. From an Indian film scene point of view, the only sports-related content worthy of their story telling is the ‘underdog winning against all odds’. One of our earlier attempts at sports movies landed in the Oscar shortlist. I already wasn’t rating the Oscars much but when they shortlisted Lagaan, my assessment of them was complete.
Dangal is another sports based movie where the underdog does win against all the odds in the final piece of action in the final game of the championship with a super-dramatic move. That’s original. The sport is different, the setting is different – rest everything is pretty much the same.
The most important thing in such movies is how much the audience is able to connect with the protagonist so they can root for him or her. For that to happen the character development of the protagonist is extremely key. We need to know why he/she does what he/she does and that should be acceptable and appreciable. In Dangal, we get told in a couple of lines that Mahavir could not achieve his dream due to financial constraints and that’s about it. His disappointment about his career was not dealt with right amount of depth. Why does he want to do what he wants to do? Any sportsman would want to win the ultimate prize for his country but what was Mahavir’s story? So, as the movie started with the reference to Mahavir’s unfulfilled dreams, it didn’t really pain me as much as it should have. But this is where star power helps. People are ready to root for Mahavir in any case because it’s played by Aamir Khan.
What follows is how Mahavir achieves ‘his dream’ of winning a gold for India through his daughters. Aamir’s earlier ventures such as Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots had a strong theme on why the parents should not impose their desires and their unfulfilled dreams on their kids and let them grow, evolve, develop and excel on their own terms. And here comes an Aamir Khan production movie, where the father forces his young daughters into a sport against their wishes and brutally disciplines them – all because ‘he could not win’ a Gold for India and now ‘he wants to win’ a Gold through his daughters. This makes it hard to root for Mahavir as this seems more like a personal ambition that he’s got which gets a casual and occasional patriotic reference.
What’s a sports movie without training scenes. You’ve got the staple scenes on inhumane training programme that demands hard work, sweat and blood. We’ve been doing this since the 50s. Over just one song, we’ve seen our hero go from pauper to millionaire. This is the sports version here. That’s fine as the movie lasts 3 hours and not 3 years but it’s time we found innovative ways of story telling for such things.
The conflicts among Mahavir, his daughter Geeta and the national coach are probably the most interesting parts of the movie. These episodes are worthy to be movie themes themselves. In this movie though, these are being used for ‘powerful scenes’ than as running themes. It’s so predictable and unfortunate that the national coach role had to be incompetent and negative. This movie didn’t need a negative character (as in Mahavir’s real story) and the fact that a formulaic negative role was needed was probably down to the lack of development of Mahavir’s role.
The last half hour of the movie was mostly the match scenes in the tournaments. Well, you can skip these 30 mins and still be able to predict what happens. Geeta starts to perform poorly, trails badly, stares at defeat and exit, makes a roaring come back and with seconds to left, does the improbable to win the Gold in the last second.
The best thing about Dangal is the basic education on the sport of wrestling. The movie introduces us to the basic rules of the sport and allows us to enjoy and appreciate wrestling, not just in the movie but also as a sport. And these wrestling scenes – both on the soil and in the tournament – are picturised superbly well. Also, the girls have acted well. Aamir though, finds himself in a script there was little scope for acting. Fortunately for him, his whole now-famous weight gain and weight loss efforts do well to hide the limited potential for acting. In most of the scenes he was (intentionally) expressionless and in others, his emotions were pretty basic. Probably the role is too simple for him.
Through Mahavir, the movie does glorify an obsessed father to force his dreams on his unwilling daughters, who also brutally de-faminises them in the name of control and discipline. For a movie that was supposed to be about the success of women in a male-dominated sport, the movie is all about the domination and superiority of one male – Mahavir. The one time Geeta gets to challenge Mahavir, predictably, she was on the wrong side. If this movie is going to inspire, will more girls be willing to take up male dominated sports or parents will feel less guilty about thrusting their dreams on their children?
This is not a judgment on the character of the real Mahavir. He was what he was. The question is about his story. Does his story really help to convey the messages that this movie purports to convey. Or, given the artistic liberty of fictionalising the true story, could more be done to make the story fit the supposed theme?
Finally, I’d say Dangal is a good masala movie. By this, I mean an ordinary movie which is a good entertainer. A movie that knows the pulse of the people of this country and exploits it fully to fantastic effect. If you want to do the country proud, win a gold. If you don’t want to embarrass our country, please do not send this to the Oscars.