Dangal— A Wrestler Flips Bollywood Narrative on its Head

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.

Food, Love and Memories of Eid

I’m going to be that person who says “my BFF in middle school was muslim” – but this post isn’t about extrapolating one person to a culture. It is, naturally, about food.

This friend lived in an old muslim neighborhood in Mumbai, right by a mosque in a crumbling timber building with china mosaic floors and carved cathedral ceilings, in a lane crammed with food shops that doused her home perpetually in fresh smells of kabab’s, yeasty naan, and syrupy gulab jamun. Her grandfather, Nanajaan, sat in a teakwood and wicker easy chair in the main hall, a brass spittoon by his side, his silver beard and kohl lined eyes intimidating enough to curb our giggles as we tried to sneak past without waking him as he dozed.

Every Eid, when we visited, he stopped us in our tracks and in his gravelly stern-kind voice wished us Eid Mubarak and stuck a ten rupee note in our hands as “eidee.” Naturally, we learned to appreciate the fact that Eid did not happen only once a year. Then he called to his daughters-in-law – “Make sure the children are fed.”

And fed we were. A feast of lamb biryani with apricots and almonds, beef kababs, and kofta currys so rich we had to crawl to the desserts – saffron sprinkled vermicelli pudding, nutty date cakes, and flaky fried dough dunked in every manner of sugar.

There’s a happiness in that kind of fullness, a joy in that kind of festivity, a peace in the food coma that follows. A wonderful sense of being pampered and belonging when a friend’s mother forces that last jalebi on your plate and you think you’re gong to explode, but you don’t care. You can’t in the face of that perfect crunch of a jalebi before it melts on your tongue and turns every inch of you into your tastebuds.

Anytime I hear Eid mentioned, I miss that old house, that old grandfather, my friend, her gorgeous mother. I’ve lost them to time. But the embrace of their love and the joy of sharing in their celebrations lives on untainted in my cravings for those flavors and for that unique heart-over-belly fullness.

Eid Mubarak to all who celebrate. But to all those who do and don’t, may you find yourself some biryani and vermicelli pudding. And I mean that in the most metaphorical sense.


What Does Banning The Documentary India’s Daughter Accomplish Exactly?

Yesterday I read the opinions expressed by the Delhi rapists (5 men who brutally raped and beat a 23 year old medical student to death 3 years ago and are still awaiting sentencing) as they were expressed on INDIA’S DAUGHTER a BBC documentary set to air this weekend. My first reaction was RAGE. Yes, in all caps and then some.

How dare the media give these bastards a voice? How dare women of India be subjected to this kind fear mongering from beyond jail bars?

In the pieces of the documentary floating around the internet, the focus was on what the men said, on how with astoundingly sociopathic lack of remorse, they blamed women for being raped, beaten, murdered. They warned women that if they continue to come forth after being raped and try to have rapists convicted, of course they would have to be murdered. Because, of course, the men have to protect themselves.

So, my initial anger (a huge overwhelming blast of it) was against the media, against BBC, against the film maker. But then I read interviews with Leslee Udwin, the film maker who spent the past two years of her life making this film. I watched an excellent panel on NDTV where Leslee and Jyoti Singh’s (I do think it’s time to use her real name and not call her Nirbhaya, as though she were a made up girl) parents talk about the documentary and the tragedy. And I read up all I could on what the film was about.

And I was wrong. My rage was entirely misdirected.

Just as I was getting behind the documentary and placing my rage where it belonged, I found out that the documentary has been banned by the Indian government. Even the excellent NDTV panel about the documentary that had been largely instrumental in helping me see how it is vital that this conversation not be silenced has been taken down.

So while I can’t share the link, I can definitely summarize the interviews with the film maker and Jyoti’s parents that led me to change my mind and will ensure that I for one will be watching the documentary.

First, the film does not give voice to the rapists. It seeks out and shines a long awaited light on the root cause of the rampant violence against women in India, which seems to be growing instead of receding. It shows the complete and
utter lack of respect for women by a large section of society. So much so, that it borders on hatred, on seeing women as sub-human. Misogyny boiled down to it’s purest most concentrated form.

It isn’t just the rapists either, their lawyers, seemingly educated family men, also unequivocally blamed women for rapes. They talk about women as flowers (soft, destructible) who need to be protected by and from men who are thorns (strong, violent). One of the lawyers goes so far as to say that he would publicly and in the presence of family pour gasoline on his daughter and burn her if she consorted with a man she wasn’t married to.

Of course this isn’t how the entire country thinks but anyone who tells you a vast majority doesn’t is lying. And how on earth do we fix the thinking if we can’t bear to bring it out into the open and link it to the violence it begets? The precise need for a documentary like this is that the thinking and the violence are not two unrelated things. Someone needs to underscore that.

Second, the film maker herself has suffered rape, a fact she is able to state without a whit of self blame. “The shame is the rapist’s not mine.” These are words every woman (and man) needs to hear over and over again, until they are finally allowed to sink into our preprogrammed psyches and become the truth they are. If nothing else of this interview is ever aired, show women this, please.

Third, and possibly more important than anything else is that Jyoti’s parents unequivocally support the documentary. As poor, barely educated parent’s of a daughter they put through medical school, a daughter who in the face of five monsters fought to death and then lived to provide the authorities with information to prosecute her killers, as parents of such a girl, these amazing people see this documentary as the voice they must use to get justice, because they feel like they have been given none. It’s been three years since the incident and they haven’t seen a single court date for sentencing. All they have seen is the number of violent incidents rise as men are arrested and not punished and lawmakers watch and reinforce the very thinking that causes the violence.

If they have the courage to hear the men who gouged out their daughter’s body parts threaten the women of their country to stay inside their homes or else be raped and murdered, if they can look at that and hope that it will shake the nation out of it’s centuries old dogma then I believe them. When Jyoti’s mother says that if the government is cowardly enough to hide the truth in this documentary, the very social fabric of India will catch on fire, I believe her.

Because I grew up being touched on trains and buses by random, strange men without a single person around me ever coming to my aid, as did every woman in India. But I also grew up walking home alone from work and college late at night without fear. But those dichotomies are clashing now. Because society let men touch us on buses and trains and catcall us from street corners ever since we were little girls, it has created monsters with the confidence that comes from decades of going unpunished. Now let these monsters speak and let society identify its garbage so someone can finally find a way to destroy it instead of yet again sweeping it under the carpet.

You Talking To Me, Sonali? (an authenticity in diversity a-ha moment)

I recently finished revising The Bollywood Bride and as usual my beta readers were pure gold. It’s amazing what you don’t see about your own writing and your own story when you’ve been buried in it for months, for sixteen hours a day. Having a good support system of talented critical eyes can help you not just fix and polish your story but it can also zero in on patterns and style, both good and bad and help you fix or hone them.

This time around I had a beta reader notice something I had never myself heard in my own writing before. She noticed that my characters use each other’s names in conversation, a lot. Is that an Indian thing? she asked. Because if it is leave it in. It had just jumped out at her and she pointed it out. Which was fantastic because it got me thinking.

I ran a search through my manuscript and with some deft highlighting I realized that she was right. My characters did address each other by name a lot. So, of course I read a few more stories about Indian characters written by Indian authors and yes, <dear reader> (insert your name here), the characters in these books also did use each other’s names a lot. Especially, when emotions were flying high.

For instance, “Why are you looking at me like that, Samir?” or “What was I supposed to do, Ria, go back to my life as though nothing happened?”

Then I started thinking of my favorite romantic lines in non-Indian literature/films.

In As Good As it gets, Melvin says, “You make me want to be a better man” if he were Indian would he say, “You make me want to be a better man, Carol!”

Yes, yes, I do believe he would.

And where Jack says, “I wish I knew how to quit you!” in Brokeback Mountian, no fullblooded Bollywood star would ever leave out the ‘Ennis.’

“I wish I knew how to quit you, Ennis!” There. That helps me breathe.

On the other had, when I went back to all the most famous lines form Hindi films, guess what I found? They include the addressee. In DDLJ when Raj says “bade bade deshon mein choti choti batein hoti rehti hain” (In the biggest nations across the world, little things like this happen) he prefaces it with a “Senorita” which is what he teasingly calls Simran. So not just “These things happen” but “Senorita, these things happen.” (and if you’re going. Yes! that sounds so much better, Sonali! Then chances are you’re Indian).

And it’s not just romantic lines either. All the best non-romance based Bollywood lines came with an addressee attached too. When Gabbar Singh, possibly the most legendary villain in the history of Hindi films, asks his underling, “Kitne aadmi the?” (How many men did it take to make you run away with your tail between your legs?) He starts it with “Aare O, Samba” and the address itself is its own legend in the fandom.

And then there’s that other line from Sholay, arguably the best line in a Hindi film ever, “Tumhara naam kya hai, Basanti?” (What is your name, Basanti?). But that line is an entire blog post all by itself. (humor, plot, character-building, voice, all achieved to perfection in one fell swoop) But I digress.

The point here is that despite the fact that I detest stereotypes, I do admit that communities and cultures speak a certain way and often we don’t even notice it ourselves. I’ve started noticing how I speak to people and, yes, dear reader, I name names. A lot. What I loved about this one was the subtlety of it. It’s a tool, I realized. When I use names, it’s an emotional punctuation. As a character it says things about me. In conversation, sometimes it’s a caress, sometimes a slur and sometimes an attempt to shake the person I’m talking to in sheer frustration. And knowing this helps not just with staying true to my character’s culture but to my character herself. In knowing that if a character doesn’t match up to this norm, she is different and exploring why she is different and why it manifests in this particular way in her conversation.

It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that as a writer, eavesdropping on conversations between the communities you’re writing helps authenticity. And not just culturally differentiated communities but those based on profession, age, social class. It’s what they teach you in Dialog 101. But I think knowing not just how characters speak but why they speak the way they speak is what could really make things more interesting and yes, authentic.

Coming back to my revision, I did go back and examine each one of those names I had highlighted in dialog, and I tried to only keep the ones that served a purpose whether it was voice or emotion. But I definitely felt like I had learned something new.