December 22 2016
One of the superstars of Indian cinema is in fine form…
ANY SELF-RESPECTING fan of Aamir Khan will have to see his latest release, “Dangal” (‘Wrestling’).
Even if you’re not his biggest fan, this is an entertaining and well-constructed film with good performances throughout and a very solid story.
Khan is, undoubtedly, the very heart and soul of this film and gives it a wonderful gravitas and authority.
He plays the hard man and patriarch in some respects, Mahavir Singh Phogat.
Of traditional stock, Phogat is a decent wrestler but never makes it beyond a national level.
It isn’t clear whether it was his ability or family pressures that led him to abandoning wrestling as more than just a hobby.
As one scene with his father suggests, wrestling does not pay that well and it holds an uncertain future for Phogat, when a stable government position is on offer. He accedes to his father’s wish.
Naturally enough, he abandons the dream for himself, but continues to keep himself in shape and another early scene establishes himself as a talented wrestler who could have gone further with more support and encouragement.
Nevertheless, he holds out the dream that his son, or just one of them, will take up the sport and achieve the glory he once coveted.
He and his wife emotionally invest in all sorts of quackery in a bid to produce a son, but he ends up fathering four girls.
Effectively, his dream is over until one day, a family from the village turn up on his doorstep and demand action be taken against those responsible for attacking two boys.
Mahavir at first believes his nephew (Ritwik Sahore) is responsible, but that proves to be wrong when the family turn to Mahavir’s two eldest daughters, the young Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar).
They are the ones responsible for a boys’ beating. Mahavir is secretly thrilled that his girls can stand up for themselves and won’t take any nonsense from anyone.
From that moment on, he believes the two can wrestle and trains them hard to compete with boys.
There’s a good deal of opposition and prejudice both from the village and some competition organisers, who just can’t get their head around a girl wrestling with boys. But Geeta is very adept, having been coached by her father and beats them easily.
This is a film about fathers and daughters and while the rise of the adult Geeta (Fatima Sana Shaikh)from provincial athlete to national icon is relatively smooth and trouble free, what comes afterwards is more troubling for father and daughter.
When she starts training with elite athletes, it is clear that her coach (Girish Kulkarni) wants her to stick to his methods and approach – “Forget what your father taught you”.
Nitesh Tiwari, who directed and co-wrote the script, does a great job. You care about all the characters and understand their plight and he makes a critical point about sports administrators who don’t always have their hearts in the correct places – it is more about perks and favours than producing inspiring, international athletes (India’s total haul of medals in all Olympics is woefully short for a large nation).
The competitive wrestling scenes are done well and because we may not know Geeta as a public figure, there’s a certain suspense and unpredictability that only heightens our engagement as an audience.
In the background is the presence of Mahavir (Khan) and it is this that gives the film its ultimate grounding and power.
He carries a sense of righteousness and pride and his conversion to the cause of women (‘don’t let any man put you down for being so’) is just as endearing and powerful. The adult Babita 9Sanya Malhotra) follows her sister’s footsteps.
This is a feel-good film and more so if sports stir your patriotic inclinations. That in many ways is the easy bit – what Tiwari and Khan and the first person behind the story – UTV executive Divya Rao – do is make you follow (and support) a cause through an unlikely hero, Mahavir.
Rao fell upon the story after reading an article in a paper about Mahavir and his wrestling daughters and felt it deserved the big screen treatment.
“Dangal” does her and everyone involved justice.
It might be a tad long at two hours and forty minutes and perhaps a little short of ditty tunes and dance numbers – there is the main “Dangal” song tune which is well done, but not a lot else makes a deep impression on the musical front.
These are very minor quibbles – this is quite a far cry from the Aamir Khan of “PK” but it shows his versatility and his ability to take on a different physical form (all muscles and seeming brawn) to inhabit his character authentically. You have to admire that and salute the slick filmmaking here.
Be interesting to see what Shaikh, Malhotra and Sahore, do next. They all have talent and a real screen-fresh likeability.
ACV rating: *** ¾ (out of five)
‘Dangal’ is on release in the UK and worldwide from December 23 2016
Main picture: Young Geeta (Zaira Wasim) is put through her punishing training schedule by father Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) as young Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) looks on.