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It feels good to start the New Year with a capsule review of Aamir Khan’s evolution as actor/producer.  Dangal redefines the inspirational film in the Indian context of gender inequality. I may be wrong, but I see a distinct difference in Aamir the actor in his own productions, and landmark films that capture moments of contemporary history produced by others.  It seems the actor is freer to take chances with his image and screen persona when he is the producer, and when he allows his star power to be used as the magnet and thematic centre – willingly – under other banners, than when he uses his image as the thinking perfectionist to appeal to all segments of the audience.

Be it 3 Idiots or PK, the other actors orbit around Aamir the sun, the director’s craft maintaining the gravitational force required to keep everything in balance. But make no mistake, it is the Aamir character who is central to the theme and plot, even where other actors are important parts of the unfolding saga.  All the major films are sagas centered around the inspirational savior, be he the alien from a more advanced civilisation or the brilliant loner who escapes the rigid educational system that demands conformity.

 

The two exceptions are Dil Chahta Hai and Rang De Basanti. In Farhan Akhtar’s seminal film – it retains its freshness to this day –  about male friendship, Akshaye Khanna’s painter is as important as the cynical, rich brat Aamir, who doesn’t believe in commitment, while Saif Ali Khan provides self-deprecating comic glue. Rakeysh Mehra makes the quartet of friends the driving force of youthful change under Aamir’s laidback leadership in Rang De Basanti.  When it comes to Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par and Dangal, it is essentially the same – but with a major difference. Aamir is a generous star who gives emotional space to other characters. The directors were all new without the weight of expectations, and Aamir the star shares screen space and our attention with the strongly etched supporting cast.

 

Lagaan’s  Bhuvan (a hero in a dhoti when urban stories were the norm) is the captain of the underdog team, exploiting one distinct quality in each of his mates to bond them into never-say-die winners. Each team member is a memorable individual, inspired by the determined patriot taking on the sneering Brits. In Taare Zameen Par, the sympathetic teacher makes his appearance halfway through the film, and the dyslexic boy remains the real hero. According to Amole Gupte, the original director and writer, the ending he had written was different from the feel good climax – akin to the forced crescendo thrust on a simple composition – when Aamir took over the directorial reins. He did credit Gupte as the creative director, but the rancour remained. 

 

In Dangal, there is a similar build up to a heightened climax, where teary-eyed patriotism overcomes the last minute hurdle  inserted to make the triumph even more memorable. Here too, the director Nitesh Tiwari is practically a newbie, with an impressive track record of getting good performance from children.  He co-directed the national award winner Chillar Party and went on to make Bhoothnath Returns, proving he is comfortable calling the shots with legends like Amitabh Bachchan. On the basis of Dangal, he emerges an equal to the perfectionist star-producer, where the obvious hard work – that demands physical prowess and impeccable mastery of rustic Haryanvi – translates into a seamless narrative ease. 

Post the earnest, socially aware catalyst of Satyameva Jayate, which featured the Phogat sisters, one did feel justifiably wary of a preachy tone creeping into this wrestling drama empowering the girl child. Banish all such doubts. Tiwari and his co-writers deliver a crackling script – the first half most notably – lit with shafts of delightful humour, pointed satire and spot on details. The casting, including minor characters, is not only impeccable but inspired. The master stroke is to make Omkar (Ritwik Sahore), nephew of the determined paterfamilias, a sly, part-time narrator who voices the dumbfounded reactions of the village/small town residents when they see their respected pehelwan break every patriarchal rule in the book to make champions out of his schoolgirl daughters. Another piece of unexpected casting is Sakshi Tanwar, the TV diva, as the strong mother and supportive wife with a mind of her own. Reportedly, Aamir Khan’s mother suggested her for the role – clearly, it’s good to have mothers who watch soaps. 

Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) was crowned the national wrestling champion years ago, and his dream is to surpass his legacy by producing an heir who will win an international gold for the country. His attempts, following every bizarre desi nuska and piece of unsolicited advice from all and sundry (to produce the all-important son) fail, till he calls stop after four daughters. He is a good father to his girls, even as he stoically packs away his trophies and gold medal as mementos of a futile dream. The moment of realisation that his older two Gita (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) have pehelwan blood flowing in them is destined to be the films’s signature line: “Mare choriya chore se kam hai ke?” Aamir delivers the line with pride, every intonation perfect.  The two pubescent girls are a revelation, and natural scene stealers. Tiwari keeps the scenes short and crisp, the editing is knife sharp and the performances so endearing that you take the girls and their wrestling partner and uncle’s guinea pig to heart. You can’t call them Gita and Babita – they are forever stamped as ‘Gitta’ and ‘Babbitta’ in our delighted minds.

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A sports film has a natural graph. Discovery of talent, the long arduous preparation, the initial setbacks and mounting triumphs are a given. The challenge is how to make it stand out from the predictable path and make the coaching unique. This is where Dangal is brilliantly innovative. Mahavir the father divorces himself from Mahavir the guru, when he puts the girls through a punishing routine, unmindful of outraged neighbours when he makes them wear shorts (cut offs of Omkar’s pants, altered by his disapproving wife, from whom Mahavir asks for just one year), cuts off their hair to a rugged crop when they complain of lice from the akhada sand, changes their strictly vegetarian diet to include chicken and forbids all girlish frivolity along with spicy food. They put up with ridicule at school and stares from strangers when Gita starts taking part in local matches against boys. That is breaking the final taboo: girls taking part in a contact sport against boys, without fear or false modesty.

Even when they break the rule once to attend a wedding, togged in feminine finery, that becomes a learning moment. The sullen, expressionless young girl getting married pours out her frustration to the unwilling rebels: at least you have a chance to escape kitchen chores, marriage to an unknown man and becoming a baby machine. Though the scene seems forced initially, it is necessary to voice what happens to millions of girls in our country. That’s the crux of Dangal’s smarts. The combination of emotional intelligence with the message – its importance can’t be over-emphasized – is the key to our enjoyment and continued engagement even when the second half gets predictable and a tad overlong. But it doesn’t become tedious, despite the negatives, because there is always the element of surprise, delivered by the grown up Omkar (miraculously reliable in his funny/warm avatar, as played by Aparshakti Khurana).

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The grown up Gita and Babita stay in character and provide the essential conflict to sustain dramatic interest. Fatima Sana Sheikhs’ Gita (poised and vulnerable) rebels against the father’s strict regimen once she enters the national sports complex in Patiala – the holy grail of aspiring athletes, where they are training for international events under supposedly international level coaches. Her suppressed feminine vanity finds an outlet in the company of other girls: she lets her hair grow, paints her nails, watches Bollywood films (interestingly DDLJ, a tribute to the rival Khan). She submits to the egoistic coach (a rather one-dimensional character, wasting the potential of the fine Marathi actor/scriptwriter Girish Kulkarni) who wants her to unlearn what her father taught, with the expected disastrous results.

The younger Babita (Sanya Malhotra) stays true to her father’s teaching and brings the erring sister back to the filial fold. This kind of conflict is integral to a sports film, but Tiwari could have avoided the unnecessary villainy at the climax. Mahavir, after his bouts with the sports administrators, who ask him not to interfere with Gita’s training, is locked in when the Commonwealth gold match is on. To give him his due, Tiwari uses the forced melodrama to showcase another factor that is crucial to drama: the athlete has, at some time, to stop relying on direct instructions from the coach and draw upon remembered training. You understand the need to stick to the graph, but wish it did not pander to the kneejerk use of the National Anthem. More so now, when we chafe under the Supreme Court ruling of enforced patriotism in theatres.

These are minor quibbles. We do need the rules of engagement in wrestling to be spelt out to understand the needle-edged semi-final and finals bouts. We don’t really care if the script is faithful to how Gita Phogat won the Commonwealth gold. The pre-credit titles acknowledge departures from facts for dramatic purpose, so we are prepared for a bit of sentimentality and a touch of melodrama. All is forgiven for the total impact Dangal makes. Aamir Khan towers – but does not overshadow – as Mahavir Phogat, minus vanity as he surrenders totally to the role. There is just one scene of a young Mahavir, all rippling muscles and toned body, while for the rest of the film he sports a comfortable paunch.

Moments of tenderness for his girls surface under the strict taskmaster. Dangal’s subtext is the reconstruction of patriarchal machismo that is at the heart of wrestling. Do girls have to be injected with a judicious dose of this philosophy to overcome innate femininity? They have to take on a patriarchal administration to get somewhere. It all depends on how understanding this establishment is when it comes to nurturing female athletes.  Serendipity favours the brave. Dangal – the prep time for the film has been long – tops off a year of achievement by our young women in Rio.  

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The timing of every Aamir Khan film raises an intriguing question, post 3 Idiots. Does he nurse a secret saviour complex? I once wrote about Father Gaston Roberge, the eminent film scholar from Kolkata, and his thesis of Rancho’s Jesus-like attributes – trust an erudite Jesuit to read the film thus. After all, it is the Jesuits working in Latin America who espoused the subversive (to the Church establishment) Liberation Theology. To Indianise the mythical reference, post-Dangal, we might cast Aamir Khan as the modern Dronacharya. He makes reparations for the injustice to Ekalavya by mentoring and training the neglected women athletes of India.

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