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.

Of Things Lost (Or Is It Gained?)

There are those who love new things, fresh, untouched things. I am a keeper of old things. Fraying edges, yellowing paper, threadbare fabric. The speaking eyes of black and white pictures do things to me I could never explain. If I lived inside a paranormal novel, I would be the person ancient things spoke to. It probably comes from growing up under the influence of my two herculean grandmothers (because really, calling them just ‘strong’ is an insult) and their ‘packs.’ Both my grandmothers came with a jangle of sisters. A cackling heckling bunch of women with candor and wisdom, and wit so sharp they could slice you in half before you looked away from that deceptively innocuous gaze twice-magnified in their bespectacled eyes.

Imagine afternoons spent nuzzled against the softest cotton saris, wrapped up in that talcum-powder scent of aging sweetness, on time-hardened mattresses laid end-to-end on a cement floor. And hearing them spin tales laced with so much larceny, such intrigue—love lost, honor forsaken, friendship, devotion, betrayal. During those long gazali- or gossip-sessions, they stripped bare family secrets with relish, drawing new blood even as they soothed old wounds with the balm of hindsight honed to a thing of power with all that telling and retelling.

None of the stories were made up. Embellished yes, thickly colored with point-of-view, laden with so much unbending opinion, but never made up. Always real life. They called those sessions gazali. A word sprung from the sandy soil of Malwan, a tiny town nestled along the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. It is a word that defies translation, not just the way all languages do, but because it is such a definer of the place it comes from that it is difficult to grasp it without knowing the people it describes.  Those gazalis, weren’t just gossip (although they were that in huge measure) they were a sharing of lives, a transference of news and heritage, of analysis, of understanding the very essence of communication, of action, of life itself.

It wasn’t about the fact that my unmarried cousin Alka had a long standing affair with the much married town lawyer. It was about Alka’s parents. About her lack of a strong father figure, her mother’s abandonment. It was about all the different ways she could have satisfied her loss, her craving. About all the ways her story could’ve unfolded, not just about the story that actually did play out. I heard that story repeated, over and over again. Spanning summers, years, decades. Every aspect of how things could have turned out for her, every possibility explored, every fork in her path traversed and tested. Every aspect of every choice she made weighed against circumstance, every possible circumstance itself, sliced and diced, plotted and graphed with the skill CNN panels can only aspire to. Alka took on, in turns, the role of a home-breaking vamp, a long-suffering heroine. A diva, a devi, a victim, a dud.

Just as GanguAji was no mere ninety year-old spinster. She was a woman, who in her unforgiving youth had dared to love across chasms of not just cast but religion, a crime punishable in her time by rioting herds burning down entire villages, and she had paid for it with a life of loneliness. Was it heroic? Poetic? Or just plain mad. Had she wasted her life, or had she found a way to live life the only way it deserves living—on her terms, unapologetically?

Their stories captured me in a way not even the books I buried my nose in did. I hungered for their stories, their pre-siesta smells, the worn leathery feel of the hands that patted my forehead, even as their lips taught me to opine, to differ, to search for truth, to gouge out masks, and to never pander to pacify.

My grandparent’s house in Pune with its forgiving shade, its unembellished sensibility, will always be in essence that gazali-filled room with ten old women, who taught me how to be a woman, and wrapped my childhood is a rich miasma of where I came from. Rooted me in a way that made even the most painful identity crisis just a story I would tell when I could.

Why today am I overwhelmed with memories of those long gazali afternoons? Because it is the season of buying new things, and of course it reminds me of the old things I’ve lost. I recently found out, that a boxful of my grandparents’ photographs were lost when their home was cleaned out and sold. It has sat on my heart like a weight I can’t seem to throw off. I remember thumbing through those pictures. My great grandmother, the poet, who died of sorrow. The look in her eyes as she gazed at my grandfather, the orphan, who sat atop a wood stool in a lace dress of all things, his face serious even as an infant. My grandmother a new bride. My father in his fighter pilot’s uniform. Pride only a young hot-blooded warrior can cage in his eyes captured in that frame. For me. Because I would never see that young man until time tempered that fire to the softer glow of wisdom and warmth. My father’s siblings together, smiling, bonded, before the complicated lives we live stuck thorns in those bonds and then pried them slowly apart.

I yearn for those pictures. Yearn to show those people to my children, whose gen-Y brains can’t even process pictures without color. I want them to know what it felt like to be in thatgazali-filled room. It is the voices in that room, those oiled gray braids on hand-embroidered pillowcases imprinted inside me that make the loss of those pictures bearable. I know there’s an irony in there somewhere but I can’t quite crystallize it into words. The loss of things that I want to remember is made bearable by my memories.

I love looking at my grandmother’s pictures, but what I love more is that she let me sit in her lap and play with the flapping wrinkled flesh that hung from her arm. I molded it, poked at it, made it swing like swishing putty. I know what it felt like beneath my fingers, against my cheek. And no matter how many boxes of heirlooms disappear, that I will never forget.