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.

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.