Dangal: The perfect Bollywood film for the uninitiated

DangalThere is a general resistance to Bollywood cinema in Western countries. This isn’t so much because of any strong objection to them, as it is because their structure is so fundamentally different from the output of Hollywood. They are frequently quite long, invest heavily in a sense of the melodramatic, and perhaps most significantly, the use of song and dance in these films is often undertaken in a way that is perceived to be disconnected from the overarching narrative by western audiences. All of this makes sense within the context of Indian culture, in which escapism is far more central to the cinematic experience, and the distinction between popular cinema and music is far less delineated. For all these reasons, I highly recommend that western film-goers check out the new Bollywood film Dangal, the perfect entry point for uninitiated audiences into the world of Indian cinema.

Dangal is a biopic, following the events that led up to the gold medal win of celebrated female Indian wrestler, Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh), at the Commonwealth Games. The narrative begins with Geeta’s father, Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Bollywood megastar, Aamir Khan), a former wrestler obsessed with the dream of having a son that he can train to become a gold medal winner. When Mahavir ends up having only daughters, he quickly adapts his dream, facing ridicule in his village when he decides that his two daughters, Geeta and Babita {Sanya Malhotra), will become medal winners. And so begins the story of the two daughters rise to international wrestling fame.

Western audiences may initially be bemused by the seemingly maniacal drive of the father to push his daughters into the world of wrestling, opening them up (initially) to ridicule within their own village. However, what becomes increasingly clear throughout the film is that Mahavir’s dream frees both children from the limited future that they might have faced within the context of their small village life. Instead of being married off at the age of fourteen, both girls find themselves becoming celebrated heroes within their community, before ultimately becoming heroes within India. The film is quite progressive within its cultural context, although the achievements of these two amazing girls is ultimately depicted within the narrative framework of Mahavir’s patriarchal leadership and desire to achieve his dreams, rather than the girls achieving theirs.

What perhaps distinguishes Dangal most, is the measured performances of both of its lead actresses in the role of the two sisters. While the much lauded Aamir Khan does as a decent job of playing the gruff and obsessive father, Fatima Singh Phogat and Sanya Malhotra deliver far less theatrical performances, offering believable depictions of two young women deeply invested in delivering their father’s dream.

The film is epic in length, coming it at around 160 minutes plus an intermission, and I have to admit that I went in with some trepidation about the director’s (Nitesh Tiwari) ability to sustain my interest. I needn’t have worried, the film entertains throughout, and much of its length comes from the decision to depict many key fights in frenetic and exciting full length – a task that would most likely be left to the montage technique in American cinema. Not that this film doesn’t contain its fair share of montage sequences. One of the reasons that the story flows as well as it does is the decision to avoid disconnected musical numbers in favor of numerous musically accompanied montage sequences depicting training, emotional conflict etc. Also worth noting, the music is pretty damn good!

A significant problem with the film should be noted. In the second half, much is made of the distinction between the patriarchal heroic training style of Mahavir Singh Phogat, and that of the coach who takes over the girls training when they move to the National Institute of Sports in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games. This coach, played in the film by Girish Kulkarni, is depicted as disinterested, lazy, and ultimately vengeful, going so far as to lock up Mahavir in a closet during Geeta’s gold medal winning match. None of this is true, obviously, and the real trainer on whom this character was based was quite rightly offended at the opportunistic depiction, clearly forged out of an attempt to inject further drama.

Overall, Dangal is quite easily the most well-crafted and entertaining Bollywood film I’ve encountered (admittedly, my experience is limited to a dozen films or so). The film powers through its near-three hour running time thanks to exceptional performances from all involved, a relative absence of the melodramatic, and beautifully integrated musical sequences that energise the audience throughout. Admittedly, the film’s politics oscillate between views that might seem progressive and patriarchal at different moments, and the decision to demonise the Commonwealth Games coach in the interests of drama is entirely unfair. But this is entertaining cinema, and I’d recommend that the Bollywood uninitiated go and have a look.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

3 thoughts on “Dangal: The perfect Bollywood film for the uninitiated

  1. I often wonder how my film tastes would be different if I was born 30 years later. It was almost impossible to see Bollywood movies in the States when I was growing up. Satyjit Ray made Bengali cinema a little bit popular, but that was about it for Indian film. When I began watching Bollywood in earnest, maybe 15 years back, the culture shock didn’t last long. I haven’t seen Dangal yet, but I probably will – it’s playing at a local cineplex. The description sounds a bit like Chak de, India!, Shahruhk Khan’s Bollywood style take on the American film Miracle about a man coaching women’s field hockey. I remember a few years ago, you published a very good overview of some modern Bollywood movies which made me aware of Anurag Kashyap, and also reminded me that there’s always something new and exciting waiting for us to discover if we just go looking for it.

  2. I have a lot of time for serious Indian cinema, and could write a post about the many excellent films that have come from there. Just one of those, ‘Pather Panchali’, has stayed in my mind since I first watched it, almost fifty years ago. I also quite like Indian music, and have enjoyed the sounds of the Sitar in the past. But I have never really taken to any Bollywood film. I tried hard with some of the Bollywood blockbusters in the past, but ended up feeling embarrassed for the cast.
    It is definitely a cultural divide, and one that I have so far been unable to cross.
    Thanks for an interesting review as always, James. Have a great year in 2017.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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