“The real life stories of Geeta and Babita Phogat are stronger and more feminist than this moralizing product written and directed by four men.”
Title: Dangal (2016)
Director: Nitesh Tiwari (👨🏽 🇮🇳 )
Writers: Piyush Gupta (👨🏽 🇮🇳 ), Shreyas Jain (👨🏽 🇮🇳 ), Nikhil Mehrotra (👨🏽 🇮🇳 ), and Nitesh Tiwari (👨🏽 🇮🇳 )
Reviewed by Li (👩🏻 🇺🇸 )
This film is nearly 3 hours long, yet I was engaged and delighted with nearly every minute. The only half point I’m taking off is for an unnecessary Act III twist. The film is strong enough that it didn’t need this clumsy plot device, and would have in fact been stronger without it.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Considering the ultra-feminist premise of Dangal, surprised this didn’t score a 5/5 on Gender? My inclination was higher, too, but as I dug into the real life stories of Geeta and Babita Phogat, female wrestlers who won glory for India in 2010 and 2014, the weakness of having an all-male writing room telling their stories became clear. The end product is a film that attributes their hard-earned successes entirely to their father, Mahavir Singh Phogat.
That isn’t to say Phogat wasn’t integral to his daughters’ development; he was, as their original trainer and a hardcore taskmaster. But consistently we see why representation behind the camera matters.
For starters, the film makes a big deal about how Mahavir was desperate for a son, but wound up with the “misfortune” of four daughters instead. In actuality, Mahavir Phogat had no particular preference for a son. So why reinforce the stereotype that having daughters is a setback?
While the above artistic liberty is merely a slight made to women for the sake of humor, much worse is the film’s assignation of blame onto elder daughter Geeta when she moves out of the family home and becomes arrogant in learning new wrestling techniques that go against her father’s teachings. This “arrogance” leads to a painful rift in their family and in she winds up failing miserably in every match during her first international competition. In the story’s emotional climax, Geeta comes crawling back to her father, begging for forgiveness, and only when she obeys him does she start winning again.
The true story? Geeta was a consistent winner. She earned gold at an international competition before she won gold again in the film’s depicted 2010 Commonwealth Games. And more than that, Geeta slayed in the final match, winning 1-0 and 7-0. Meanwhile, the film depicts her as scrapping her way to the finish line, thinking about her father all the while.
In short, the real life stories of Geeta and Babita Phogat are stronger and more feminist than this moralizing product written and directed by four men.
Mediaversity is written from an American point of view and to that respect, it will always be refreshing for us to watch a cast of primarily non-white characters. So this gets close to a 5/5 for showcasing an Indian point of view. That being said, it didn’t go unnoticed that all the actors and actresses are have lighter skin than their real life counterparts. Additionally, it didn’t sit well with me that the main buffoon/villain, Geeta’s international trainer, was one of the few dark-skinned Indian men depicted. Ahh, whitewashing: an international phenomenon.
Another minor annoyance was the comically heavy-handed depiction of Geeta’s Australian opponent, who is menacing, brutish, and basically a cartoon villain. Not surprising, but neither was it an impressive writing and casting move. So, half a point off overall for lack of nuance in ethnic depictions.
It would’ve been interesting to see some sort of hint towards LGBTQ characters, especially during the training school scenes that depict rooms full of female athletes. That being said, I’ll try and enact some cultural sensitivity and realize that a blockbuster Bollywood film is probably not where we’re going to find the beginnings of India’s sexual revolution. So for now: I’ll skip this category.
Mediaversity Grade: B (4.17/5)
This film was incredibly enjoyable, and I highly recommend it to anyone! Great production values, wonderful humor and action scenes, and great pacing for such a long movie. That being said—and with the understanding that I grading Dangal from a Western point of view—I still had to dock a couple points for the overtly moralizing, patriarchal plot and some racial sensitivity sacrificed during casting.
That being said…I still loved this movie. Dangal is a cinematic delight, so go and watch these badass women and take solace in knowing that their childhood depictions of thrashing boys was straight up real life ✊