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.

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.