It’s been interesting to witness the changing role of women in Bollywood in recent years. From the almost gruff and career focussed Piku, who takes her role as caretaker to her father as seriously as any son to the accomplished Ayesha in Dil Dhadakne Do, who is denied her legacy as scion to her father’s corporate empire, we’ve watched feminist issues addressed and skirted. Consequently there’s been a lot of discussion of feminism in Bollywood films. Even before I watched Dangal, Aamir Khan’s biopic about a wrestler who coaches his daughters to becoming olympic wrestlers, I had read a review that said the film only played at being a feminist film because it was an ode to one man’s ego. I paraphrase a bit here. I can’t quite remember what exactly the reviewer said but rarely have I found this to be more untrue of a film.
Dangal takes on gender issues in India as only a film about wrestling can. Head on. The fact that it’s based on real characters makes this head butting all the more relevant. Mahavir Singh Phogat is a wrestling champion who is above all else a wrestler. He breathes the sport, sees all the world around him through the lens of his sport. It is how he walks and talks and carries out his relationships, as a wrestler. Within this framework of character rests the fact that he was unable to bring his country a medal in international competition. He carries this failure heavily and puts all the weight of redemption into the dream that he will train his son— when he has one— to achieve what he couldn’t and win wrestling gold for India.
His wife births four daughters.
This fact is bemoaned loudly and publicly, giving face to the age old belief that the birth of daughters is somehow disappointing. “I love my daughters. Don’t get me wrong,” he says to his wife, giving voice to the centuries-old gender bias. Fathers don’t not love their daughters, they do, but daughters can’t do what sons do. The metaphor is as subtle and painful as a kick to the gut of every girl who has witnessed this belief in one of its million veiled forms.
But then his two adolescent daughters beat up some boys who call them names, and the boys’ parents come to his home to report their displeasure. Here now magic happens. The wrestler, not the father, asks the girls how they beat the living daylights out of these boys. The wrestler’s eyes light up as the girls demonstrate their technique and their excitement in using their strength. The wrestler recognizes ability. All the father does is refuse to allow the gender-bias that should have been ingrained in him to get in the way. He sees ability and goes batshit on polishing that diamond. Despite all he has been taught to believe, he sees a child’s talent as a child’s talent, not a son’s or a daughter’s.
This is what makes him worthy of having a biopic made about his life. This and the fact that once he’s made up his mind, he doesn’t let all of society’s combined and considerable pressure dissuade him from this new and radical belief- that girls can be wrestlers, that daughters can fulfill your unfulfilled dreams.
Feminism doesn’t say all girls must be able to beat up boys any more than it says a boy who can’t be a wrestling champion is somehow less of a boy. The point in a just and equanimous society is to honor ability and choice. If a girl wants to wrestle, and shows a talent for it, thrusting her into a life of child birthing and nurturing cannot be acceptable just because society deems it so. Therein lies patriarchy and it steals from men as much as it steals from women. This same mindset relegates boys who take no joy in sports into struggling with them and brands them as lesser for not conforming.
Had Mahavir Singh Phogat not been able to see talent past gender, he might have tried to push his nephew, the adorable narrator of the film, into a sport he had no talent or ability for, bringing nothing but failure and shame upon him. Instead, he sees his daughters as individuals capable of reaching their potential, a fact that is brought to the girls’ attention by their friend— a girl who is being married off at fourteen, because no one has taken the time to see her as an individual worth anything more than her societal role.
Yes, there is a measure of ego in a parent using his children to fulfill his dreams. But find me a successful athlete or artist who did not at some point feel pushed too hard by a parent, guardian, or coach for whom their success became personal, and I’ll find you ten who did. What is far more rare is a father who believes in his daughters enough to push them like the sons he never had, because suddenly one day he realizes the two are no different and he follows that epiphany right to international gold.