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Mainstream, VOL LV No 16 New Delhi April 8, 2017

Shared Dreams, Distant Reality: An analysis of aspirations in movie Dangal

Sunday 9 April 2017

by Swati Sehgal and Divyanshu Patel

Dangal: the Sport and the Metaphor

The title, Dangal, literally meaning a wrestling competition, holds on to multiple meanings in the movie. As the narrative evolves, it signifies a range of emotions that move from angst and rebellion to commitment, failure and will to excel. Remarkably, without whining about the status of sports in the country, the movie showcases the inner world and life challenges of sportswomen/men. Without engaging in reduction of the journey of sportswomen from ‘nowhere’ to ‘somewhere’, the film, directed by NiteshTiwari, in a very nuanced manner delves into the minutiae of the life-world as defined and determined by contingencies of contexts.

The focus is on the ‘making’ of the player and there is no rush to drive the spotlight at how consequential and landmark the victories are. Rather, the movement in the plot is defined by how it took shape and unfolded. The script acknowledges and accords salience to events that were seminal in realising the potential. And this is certainly no naive attempt; rather there is a conscious selection of voice and portrayal of characters.

An illustration of the same is the selection of the narrator—the cousin—who remains an active observer. Being of the same age as the protagonists, he becomes a conduit to highlight, albeit humorously, the trials of the journey of Geeta and Babita. It is significantly striking that the movie does not present ‘training’ with random or sweeping camera-shots. There is an uninhibited expression of varying emotions in apparently mundane acts, without being melodramatic.

Preparation for the ‘Game’

What differentiates the movie from those in the league (based on the lives of sportsmen/women) is the pedagogy of preparation for the game. There is a stark contrast built within the movie where, on the one hand, there is the father as the coach and, on the other, the coach assigned by the academy. The difference is that of being educated for the game and knowing the game.

Being selected and chosen to be a part of the national academy is celebrated, but there is tension too as it implies adjusting to an unfamiliar learning environment for Geeta. The variation in technique and its imposition is threatening and uncomfortable for her. It foregrounds how being educated to play the game is completely different from being mechanically told to play the game. The critical aspect foregrounded here is that there is a need to build the game from the vantage point of the player than that of the coach.

Apparently one may choose to dismiss it as another movie which shows how children are burdened by imposition of decisions by parents. But this reading may be reductive and superficial given the larger frame of reference that was required to be adopted by the movie (being a biopic). An interpretation purely based on ‘agency’ may disregard the spacial and temporal location that the movie is placed within. Measuring and defining each life trajectory by the same indices would be a misleading calibration. Also given the fact that it is a life-sketch and not a purely fictional rendering, eluding events would do injustice to the subject.

In the movie there is an attempt to acknowledge the determining elements of contexts and the focus is not on adopting a singular lens to see what happened. This is evocative of the dilemma of bringing to life a real story on screen. It is riddled with the question of building focus. That is difficult as selection of depiction generates unconsciously zones of exclusivity. As a biography, the movie also involves the choice of what goes into the cinematic space, driven by elements such as coherence and the time-frame.

Father’s Aspiration/Life-choice of a Player

What differentiates the portrayal is that there is nuanced depiction of a father’s affection, which borders on excesses with infrequent gestures of appreciation. But this veneer of uncompromising toughness is cut across as the narrative incorporates gestures and expressions of unbridled delight at the feats accomplished. As a father, and as a coach, he tries to grab every single opportunity to create a conducive environment. It may be read as his own passion for the sport, but it is enabling from the perspective that he stands up against a world-view.

Reading the movie as an apology for parenting is reading too far. This is highlighted at several junctures in the movie, with starkness and attention to detail. One may argue that there is commitment without exploration, or unque-stioned internalisation but this jars with the ground realities. It is not to dismiss these constructs as unimportant but the advocacy is for the necessity to recognise the effort of a father, who clearly rises above and beyond his means, both in terms of social mores and finances, to provide an environment to excel. Undeniably it is harsh and imbued with acts of symbolic violence (such as cutting the hair), but it would be biased if one does not delve into the development of the character of the father who detracts from the situation leaving his daughters to chart out their destiny. The climax highlights this essentially as the father, who is an active spectator in each game, is conspicuously absent.

The movie very subtly delineates the evolution of life-choices, which may come from without but are later acknowledged and recognised as relevant by the protagonists. It is only then that their resolve is strengthened and the pursuit of excellence becomes a shared dream. There is a conscious attempt to hold a mirror to how a player, a woman player, has to meander not only the dynamics of the game but also the tacit role-expectations that are bound to work against an independent choice. The expected allegiance comes across quite strongly as the twin characters are at crossroads of stepping into and making a mark for themselves in a gendered world of a predomi-nantly male sport. The movie also tries to bring into purview the dilemmas and contradictions of phases of life, especially while one has to sustain selfhood in a deterministic environment. Instead of creating a spectacle the movie depicts in a subtle manner the limitations that withhold attempts to create a niche for oneself.

State vs the Player: Generating Dialogue

The portrayal also encapsulates how the achi-evements of the duo imbued enthusiasm for the game around them. It shows how an iota of willingness to change can permeate through individual examples. Despite the fact that choice is circumscribed and given the social milieu, one cannot disregard that it is an empowering act. The expectation is and cannot be monu-mental while engaging with closed views. There is at least an attempt to generate a dialogue, a proactive stance to deal with a situational matrix which is diametrically opposed to the notion of women’s participation in the public sphere.

The movie underlines several social constituents instrumental in generating the demarcations of accessibility. The reference is to who can stake claim to the resources ‘meant for all’ or represent the nation at a sporting event. This brings into purview the role of social capital, which benefits and privileges a few. The movie highlights, though in a subtle manner, the lacunae in the stance of the state. It is clearly pointed out that provision is not the be all and end all, rather ensuring availability and equitable distribution should be the desirable end. The narrative also comments upon the insufficiency of the state in tapping the demographic dividend effectively. The inertia is captured succinctly when despite aspiration and talent the recognition of efforts is belated.

It is important to ponder over the politics of who can be a valid representative. And why class, caste and gender become elements of exclusion in apparently neutral arenas such as sports. The necessity is to examine why societal malpractices seep into arenas where there should be no discriminatory factors. The movie punctures the almost fatalistic belief in the sporting arena being a masculine space. In the movie, Mahavir Phogat, the father, is constantly berated for bringing girls to wrestling competi-tions before his daughters get a chance to compete. It is a crucial scene as within the arena Geeta challenges her opponent not to deter or retract by the idea that he is fighting against a girl (as the referee chooses to caution the boy to be soft and light-handed during the fight because it is a girl that he is competing with). This is accompanied by lyrics: ‘Nikkar aur t-shirt pehenke aaya cyclone’ (Wearing a half pant/shorts and a t-shirt, she is like a cyclone in the wrestling arena) which encapsulate the fear and anxiousness of a staunchly conservative patriarchal society. This reference to cyclone is indicative of the threat that such change poses to the traditional hierarchy. This is referred to in terms of clothing, especially in the context of a State where the Khaps have been infamous for voicing dictates for women and debarring lifestyle choices.1 Rather than serving a cosmetic purpose the songs, written by Amitabh Bhattacharya, display a conscious engagement with the theme of the movie, thus qualitatively enhancing the intent of the representations.

In another song, quite aptly, the word ‘dhakkad’ is repeatedly crooned while referring to the girls as they practise or emerge victorious in one of the several bouts of wrestling. Of the many connotations of the word the most apt one is ‘inspiring awe’,2 which indeed the girls do by their remarkable feats. This sentiment of unending struggle to prove mettle in a world dominated by male norms is also echoed in the lyric from the movie ‘Ma ke pet se marghat tak hai teri kahani pag pag pyare, dangal, dangal’ (It is ‘your’ journey from the your mother’s womb to the graveyard/pyre).3 It also reverberates in the mother’s constant proclamation of a perceived sense of loss, an assumed deprivation that she could not give birth to a son. The bemoaning of the birth of girls, though loved and cared for, is indicator of the internalisation of a patriarchal norm. This is even more harmful because here patriarchy is operative in an implicit and apparently unobtrusive manner. Consciousness4 to realise and recognise beyond the situation is absent. A country where the girl child is at a receiving end of development, evident through indicators such as the child sex ratio (919 per thousand as per the 2011 census)5 and disparate levels of education it is essential to recognise the relevance of this cinematic gesture in bringing to the fore a story of courage, determination and will to stand up to challenges posed by closed mindsets. The skewed ratios repeatedly drive home the point that women are not being considered as equal participants in the developmental process. The gravity of this deterrent societal world view is evident in the movie too.

Mahavir Phogat is depicted as a man who acknowledges and rises above his shortcomings. There is a clear admission by him in the movie too that he had faltered in his expectation of a boy to carry forward his legacy of wrestling. He is depicted as a man who is governed by the thought-process of the society that he had lived in and he evolves. We cannot merely critique him for who he is. An analogy can be drawn to the recent critique of Gandhi being termed as racist in Ghana.6 The argument given against this accusation was that he was located within the constraints of a particular time and space and his outlook evolved manifold. When we can acknowledge and agree with this view, then we can surely, as spectators, agree that Phogat’s decisions were driven by who he was.

Thinking Ahead

The movie opens up several questions to ponder upon. It is the creative medium which reiterates the necessity to engage with issues that plague the social fabric of the nation. The story of Phogat’s family lends hope, and yet at the same time urges the viewer (the citizens) to take cognisance of issues that are beyond the scope of the film. Unanswered and unaddressed are concerns which are linked to the state’s inability to fulfil its function as a welfare state. It is a flaw that expectations are directed at singular individuals. The Constitution makes several provisions that are linked to the basic needs of health, education, nutrition to name a few. But it is a grim situation because the endeavours of the state are grossly insufficient.

Let us assume a child from a tribal family or Dalit family is desirous of exploring the domain of wrestling for making a career. Is it even possible that there are enough provisions (in terms of infrastructure, equipment, nutritional provisions) for him/her to explore? There is a severe lack to even recognise this talent. And even if he/she manages to enter the State or national level events, he/she often loses out because of inability of the federations constituted for the sport to provide adequately for the basic needs such as diet required for a player. Initiatives, such as having the mammoth Food Security Bill in place, is good, but it too is subject to politically manipulated religious prejudices that are imposed indiscriminately in the States.

Stark examples of the same are the banning of eggs in meals provided to children in Madhya Pradesh.7 These are whimsical decisions which are detrimental to the intent of the Bill. The elimination of a basic protein/nutritional component from the diet is a blow to the aim of inclusive development, as enshrined in the Constitution.

The need of the hour is to diversify the character of aspiration. Every individual needs to be recognised as a potential contributor to the developmental process. It should not be an expected response from a particular community to get medals. Pampering those who are better-off ends up promoting inequality and generates expectation from only one community. This needs a comprehensive model of development which is not assessed by the logic of the well-being of a few.8 Even the celebrations of medals won are often momentary and frequently the winners are lost in oblivion once the state has made a casual recognition. Barring a few, the calibre is nipped in the bud because of non-availability of economic resources, primacy of selection on the basis of caste affiliations, to name a few. The intersections of caste, class and gender make it difficult and impossible to excel.

Moving away from the micro-context of the movie to the macro-context of the nation at large, the overwhelming reality is that still archaic constraints loom large over the recognition of talent. The movie can only be an inspiration, opening up the arena for deliberation but the realisation can only happen when there is greater equitability of infrastructural support and, most importantly, when there is structural change in the societal expectation which indeed is an long drawn and momentous process.


1. This has been widely documented across newspapers and has been questioned and deliberated over. The State of Haryana has the lowest sex ratios and the figures are even more skewed in terms of child sex ratios as per the Census 2011. These have been repeatedly recognised as alarming indicators and several measures have been undertaken to address this issue but the prejudices of gender continue to hold sway.

2. http://shabdkosh.raftaar.in as referred to on 25/12/2016

3. http://www.lyricsmint.com/2016/12/dangal-title-song.html as referred to on 25/12/2016. http://www.thehindu.com/books/The-game-changer/article16933193.ece as referred to on 25/12/2016.

4. The reference here is to Friere’s concept of critical consciousness, that is, the ability to perceive social, political and economic oppression and take action.

 It has been elaborated in his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968).

5. http://www.census2011.co.in/sexratio.php as referred to on 25/12/2016.

6. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/06/ghana-academics-petition-removal-mahatma-gandhi-statue-african-heroes as referred to on 25/12/2016. http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/Was-Gandhi-a-racist/article16754773.ece as referred to on 25/12/2016.

7. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/egg-less-meals-at-anganwadis-madhya-pradeshs-ban-pitches-nutrition-against-politics/articleshow/47560045.cms as referred to on 25/12/2016.

8. This draws upon the idea of development discussed in the context of challenges of deprivations as in Amartya Sen’s book, Country of First Boys (2015). This perspective is also discussed at length by Jean Dreze in the article ‘Democracy and Right to Food’, featured in the EPW’s anthology on Social Policy (2016).

Swati Sehgal is an Assistant Professor, Institute of Home Economics, Department of Elementary Education, Delhi University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: sehgal.swati4[at]gmail.com

Divyanshu Patel is a Ph.D scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: rahulblp88[AT]gmail.com

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