Movie Review: Dangal.
Dangal is a positive, exhilarating and emotionally powerful movie about ambition and gender roles.
We start the year off with a bang by reviewing a wonderful film from India. Dangal, directed by Niwesh Tiwari and distributed by Disney, tells the story of a driven and talented wrestler named Mahavir Phogat who defied tradition and taught his daughters how to wrestle. Filled with music and action, the film also manages to be intensely emotional and to speak meaningfully about the status of women in India.
Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) was a ferociously talented wrestler who dreamed of representing India in the Olympics. His family’s poverty prevented him from competing abroad after winning the national championship, and he decided that he would one day teach his sons to wrestle in the international games. As fate would have it, he had four daughters instead.
Mahavir loses faith until one day he discovers that his eldest daughters, Geeta and Babita, have been beating up boys who tease them. Realizing their strength and fire, he talks his wife into allowing a harsh one year training period to see if the girls can become wrestlers. The girls hate it, but soon realize their father is trying to give them a life path that avoids the drudgery and forced marriages tradition forces upon women. They dedicate themselves to wrestling and soon become the most fearsome competitors India has ever seen.
Sights and Sounds!
Dangal can take your breath away with the impact of its music and action sequences. Tiwari plays with the expectations of a Bollywood musical. He even throws a few good-natured jabs throughout the film about the sappy love stories usually found in big Bollywood musicals. Instead of breaking into song and dance, his film bursts into thundering music that blends traditional music with modern techniques like rap and rock and roll, choreographed to scenes of intense training and competition. Wrestling becomes the dancing in Dangal, and it is every bit as fierce as the music.
The action sequences in this movie are fantastic. They are expertly choreographed and filmed such that every movement is vivid and fluid. There is very little quick-cutting or camera cheating. The film is proud of its sport, and the actors are phenomenal at portraying some of the best action sequences I have ever seen in a sports movie. Each of the main cast was trained by a professional wrestling coach, and it shows. Fatima Sana Shaihk, who plays adult Geeta, and Sanya Malhotra, who plays Babita, show such fierce physicality and technique, it is staggering to think they are not professional athletes.
A Wealth of Talent.
The roles of Geeta and Babita are cast perfectly. As children, the two actresses who portray them are charming and engaging, providing much of the levity in the early film. The scene where they show their father exactly how they beat up boys had the theater roaring with laughter. They also manage to show their hardships such that you can empathize with them as the endure intense training and the scorn of their peers for being different.
As adults, their characters are simply perfect. Shaihk and Malhotra are formidable presences. Not only are they completely convincing as athletes, but they inhabit their characters with such depth that you feel a genuine connection to them. They are fully realized, and a tremendous pleasure to watch.
Father Knows Best?
Aamir Khan is likewise excellent as Mahavir Phogat. As a young man, you can feel his intensity and drive to win shimmer off of his skin like heat. As a coach, his ferociousness is mixed with a tinge of sadness for the ordeal he is putting his daughters through. There is not an inch of softness in his methods, but he is not a flat character, and Khan makes you feel his inner turmoil convincingly.
That turmoil is an essential component of the film. What Phogat is doing is considered wrong by many of his contemporaries, and his brutal methods will make many view him negatively. The film does not shy away from that. Both Tiwari and Khan embrace the duality of the situation, that Mahavir may be doing the right thing the wrong way…or the wrong thing the right way.
Stumble then Rise.
There are only a few places Dangal stumbled in its execution. A few of the songs are noticeably weaker than the rest, and don’t quite fit the scenes they are paired with. Often, the lyrics pair up to the scene in a one-to-one manner, becoming a tad heavy handed. You hardly notice since so many of the songs are amazing (especially the main theme, Dangal!, which is going to be in my head for weeks) but when the songs are weak, the exposition through lyrics trope becomes apparent.
The social message in this film is mostly handled deftly, but becomes overblown in two segments. When Geeta and Babita sneak away from training for a wedding, they get a sermon from their friend about how girls are considered burdens, and their father is saving them from a life of domestic drudgery. While it does fit with the film’s ethos (the film was shown tax free in India to raise money for programs aimed at helping girls and women) it is dropped here as a bit of plot-ex-machina to get the girls fired up for training. It would have been better had it come from Mahavir himself.
At the very end, Mahavir gives Geeta a speech about how her gold medal match is a struggle for all women in India who want a better life. Once again, its a bit of an plot convenience to raise the stakes, which would have been better handled in smaller moments leading up to the match. Mahavir does show in the early movie that he cares about his daughters’ place in the world, but it is not explicitly mentioned enough, by him, to make this speech feel natural.
Get Ready to Rumble!
Dangal is a wonderful movie. The acting is top notch, not suffering a single bit from being subtitled. I don’t know the logistics of Bollywood award shows, but Fatima Shaihk and Sanya Malhotra deserve accolades, and Aamir Khan has further cemented himself as a world class leading man. Nitesh Tiwari has crafted a great sports biopic that has you riveted throughout the nearly three hour run time. At no point did I want anything cut from this movie. I would have gladly sat there for 4 hours. The music and action are some of the best in the genre, and help to flesh out a film that has real heart. Go see Dangal!