FILM REVIEW: Dangal raises social issues plaguing India, but falls flat otherwise.
NEW YORK: Dangal, directed by Nitesh Tiwari, a fictionalized biopic of an ageing former wrestler from Haryana who was forced to kill his aspirations due to financial constraints, but lives his dreams through two of his daughters who he trains and eventually helps in succeeding at the international level, is for most parts a predictable, tedious and flat film which lacks overall charisma. Aamir Khan, however, playing the role of the wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat gives an exceptional performance, enhanced by his looks too, to suit the role.
Perhaps what goes most against Dangal is the fact that months of publicity around the film ensure the audience is well aware of the feats of Phogat and his two daughters, Geeta Singh Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh gives a creditable performance as the older Geeta) and Babita (played by Sanya Malhotra, in the older version). Dangal, all of 2 hours and 40 minutes long, is overstretched by a reel too many, with the end result declared from the onset of the film, except for those happy few who may not like to read entertainment news. There are long stretches in the film which if not for Khan’s appearance, would be downright boring.
Unlike ‘Lagaan’, Khan’s other sporting venture, if you would have it, Dangal by comparison lacks no twists and turns in a narrative as placid as a lake on a still day, except for a bizarre moment towards the end of the film which makes a national wrestling coach of India, who trained Geeta, into a villain.
Once the drama of Geeta and Babita beginning their arduous training under the watchful eye of their father, and a reluctant but supportive mother (played by Sakshi Tanwar), and Geeta’s subsequent unprecedented wrestling bouts with boys of her age as she continues on her path to stardom is over – the best parts of the film – one can only admire Aamir Khan, as much for his acting as for the fact that he put on oodles of pounds to gain weight and buff up his body to look the part. One can only marvel at the awesome transformation from Khan’s earlier lithe avatars in ‘PK’ and ‘Dhoom 3’.
Dangal reinforces the fact that Khan is India’s best actor by far, as well as the most committed to meaningful roles. With this superb performance, he draws the divide even more with the other two big Khans of Bollywood – Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan.
There are some scenes and moments in Dangal which are truly riveting, with standouts being the young Geeta grappling for the first time with an amateur teen male wrestler, and Geeta and her father Mahavir having a go at each other in a mud pit, after an emotional confrontation. They are well played out.
Unfortunately, bar those two action scenes which brought out raw passion that the film required more of to succeed with audiences who are enamored with T20 instant cricket, the rest of the film seems like a mild joyride on a merry-go-round for kindergartners.
At the heart of the film, however, are contentious social issues that India continue to grapple with. The Phogat sisters’ journey and trials on their way to success was undoubtedly more outside of the mat in a wrestling arena. The biased and patriarchal society of Haryana which has a terrible record of atrocities against girls and women, is touched upon briefly, but more in a humorous way, inflected with Haryanvi dialect. Director Tewari and Khan lost an opportunity to explore this subject with more introspection, which would have given the film more muscle, and fleshed out the struggles of the Phogat family.
Another issue is India’s inferior sports coaches at the national level. It has led to the helplessness of many top athletes who flounder and fail to capitalize on their strengths, as exemplified in Geeta’s case.
Dangal highlights this issue in more detail than it does to the deplorable predicament of girls in Haryana. However, it’s also easy enough to see the problem of coaches when one can imagine what a teacher in a classroom would do if he or she has 75 children to monitor in a class, instead of 15 or 20. The lack of facilities and resources, especially in a sport like women’s wrestling, remain pathetic in a country like India, who zealously aspire to do well in the international sporting arena.
The good thing going for Dangal is that the exploits of Sakshi Malik, who became the only Indian woman wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics, grabbing a bronze in Rio, is still fresh in the minds of her fans and a grateful nation. Perhaps for that reason, if not to see Aamir Khan, audiences will most likely flock to the theaters to take in Dangal.
Star rating for Dangal: Two stars, out of five.
(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar. Follow him @SujeetRajan1).