Wednesday, January 04, 2017

A few thoughts on Dangal (and Aamir)

Big understatement, this: I have mixed feelings about Aamir Khan. On the one hand, I get positive and reassuring vibes when I see him in interviews or in person (most recently at the warm and chatty Delhi launch of Akshay Manwani’s book about Aamir’s uncle Nasir Husain). He is well-spoken, comes across as forthright and sensitive, has a reputation for being the most accessible of Bollywood’s bigshots, and most importantly seems to have a sense of humour that moves between registers: wit, impishness, cheesiness.

Yet, almost every time I have watched one of his major films in the past decade (going back to at least Rang de Basanti), especially the ones he seems most personally invested in as an actor/producer/creative contributor, it has been with the sense that cinematic and narrative impetus must eventually yield to heavy-handed message-mongering. I have touched on this before, in pieces about PK and Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots (all of which I enjoyed in parts, and also felt exasperated by), and in this review of a book about Aamir.

There have been pleasant surprises too: having thought he was terrible in his gazing-soulfully-into-the-mid-distance role in Dhobi Ghat, I didn’t expect to be as moved by his PK performance as I was (but then, as I sometimes joke, maybe I find Aamir most convincing as an extraterrestrial). I liked Talaash very much, and thought there were some fine moments in his Dhoom 3 role, including the big reveal at the film’s midway point.

So… lots of ambivalence. And this extended to my Dangal experience. This is a film that I’ll probably be changing my mind about a lot – I have already had a few arguments about it in my head – which means that it’s sort of pointless to write a piece about it. But here are some notes, nearly all of them accompanied by the disclaimer that I might not feel this way a few weeks later (or after a second viewing, if that ever happens).

– At one point in the first half, when Mahavir Phogat was preparing his reluctant daughters for a wrestling career, this thought jogged through my mind: “Here's a story about child abuse** dressed up as an inspirational film, going all out to manipulate our feelings about nation-love and gender equality, with Aamir's presence – along with some Disneyfied comic moments and an upbeat background score – reassuring us that All is Well; that the ends will justify the means.”

Thinking about it later, I felt this assessment was too harsh if one considered the context, the setting, the situations of these people. How might a father in this milieu behave? How would his daughters respond to a drastic change in lifestyle, the rupture of their own conditioning about what girls are supposed to be like, the discomfort and the societal opprobrium? Is this “abuse” any different from the hundreds of big and small things that nearly all parents subject their children to?

– Despite having overcome a few of my initial reservations, I still think Dangal, for all its good intentions, is in at least one sense an oddly conservative film (AS OPPOSED TO a film that simply depicts a conservative world with honesty. Anyone who has read the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book will know how much I nitpick about the difference between these two things, and how annoyed I get by the sort of sweeping left-liberal criticism that yells “regressive film!” each time a film depicts a regressive character or action). I mainly had an issue with Geeta Phogat’s arc in the second half, and the sense that the film is taking a very definite position and inviting the viewer to take it too.

There is a strange, mixed message in the scenes that follow Geeta’s going to the Patiala academy for further training. On one hand the narrative sets up her new coach as a cardboard villain, implying that the drop in her performance has to do with the shift in coaching methods. But we also see that she is free and independent for the first time, and doing things that most young people (especially youngsters who had a large part of their childhood wrenched from them by an overbearing father) would naturally do in this situation. And that her concentration may have suffered to a degree because of this change in lifestyle.

Even if there is no actual slackening in her competitive spirit, moving away from her father’s influence should be seen as part of a growing-up process, and I was completely in Geeta’s corner at this point. But throughout the second half, there is the clear impression that despite Fatima Sana Shaikh’s excellent, sympathetic performance as the adult Geeta, moving between strength and vulnerability, the film itself wants us to disapprove of her altered arc, and to take the position of the “good” daughter Babita, who stands on the sidelines firmly supporting everything daddy says and looking at her sister with deep wells of disappointment in her eyes. Didn’t work for me.

– As often happens in Aamir Khan films, a point arrives where the need to spoon-feed a viewer or to grapple showily with an important social issue takes precedence over the need to tell a specific story as well as possible. That key scene where Phogat’s daughters’ eyes are opened by the little monologue of their friend, who tells them that their father at least recognises them as human beings who can achieve something – unlike most others who think of their daughters as property, to be dutifully raised for a few years, kept in the kitchen and then impersonally married off. It’s a pat little speech, progressive in all the obvious ways, it presses the right buttons, makes us feel ah, here is a film that is Trying to Say Something Important about parents and girl children and about how change can come to the regressive hinterland.

And yet. How relevant is it to the story we have so far been shown? Up to this point, this is a narrative about a man who has a single obsession, who then uses – some might say exploits – his children to achieve his goals for him. In the scene where Mahavir assesses his two girls after learning that they beat up two boys, he is looking at them as tools that he can bend to his own purpose. What validates his methods in the end and allows this to turn into a Big Picture/Social Message film is that 1) this is based on a real-life story about young women who won medals for their country, 2) the father is played by Aamir Khan. Which brings me to this next point:

Dangal offers a good study in how our responses to a film are determined by the dominant star persona within it. As a thought experiment, imagine those early forced-training scenes with Mahavir played not by one of our most familiar and likable movie stars (and an actor who stands for a certain sort of upright value system in our current cinema, in the same way that actors like Gary Cooper, Tom Hanks and the pre-1946 James Stewart at different times represented the loftiest ideals of the American dream) but by an unknown 50-year-old, perhaps someone who looks more rough and menacing, doesn’t give wry, QS-cutey smiles every few seconds, and does the Haryanvi accent better than Aamir manages here. (Or perhaps even someone like the burly Amole Gupte, who was so miffed when Aamir took Taare Zameen Par out of his hands all those years ago.) Imagine how much more dark and discomfiting those scenes would have been then, even if everything else about them – the girls, the dialogues, the catchy music and funny song lyrics about papa as khalnayak – had been exactly the same.

(I don’t necessarily mean the above paragraph as a judgement on Dangal: all said and done, this IS an Aamir Khan film with AK in the Mahavir part, and almost everything about its tone and approach flows from that casting. Just saying that it may be a worthwhile thought experiment.)

– About the offhand clumsiness of the depiction of Geeta’s new coach: it’s a little embarrassing that an actor-producer as cerebral as AK has to repeatedly rely on this device, making the character he is playing look even better by pitting him against an antagonist who is a much-too-soft target for the viewer’s mockery or derision (and all this while making films that are supposedly “deeper” than the typical commercial Hindi movie). This comes on the heels of the sycophantic rote-meister Chatura in 3 Idiots and the irredeemably evil Godmen in PK, among other characters. (And, on a minor scale in this very film, we also have Geeta’s sneering, overconfident opponent in the final – neatly kowtowing to all the stereotypes held by Indian sports fans about the Ugly Australian).

– The wrestling scenes and the performances of the four main actresses: excellent. I doubt anyone would argue with that, and it’s the one thing I’m sure I won’t be changing my mind about (at least until I’m 70 and senile and become convinced that Aamir should have done a Kamal Haasan and played all five roles himself).


** yes, I know “child abuse” is a very strong allegation to level at the protagonist of this film, even if one is saying it in a heated moment of righteous indignation, but I use it in the same sense as Richard Dawkins uses the term in the context of the indoctrination of religion in the very young and innocent. Perhaps a more reasonable position would be Uday Bhatia's suggestion, in this review, that a Foxcatcher-like film resides beneath Dangal's surface

[Related posts: PK, a book about Aamir Khan]


  1. "it’s a little embarrassing that an actor-producer as cerebral as AK has to repeatedly rely on this device"

    You call this guy cerebral? He is anything but cerebral. A man who is given to conditioned rants on most subjects under the sun about which he has little clue.

    His best films ironically are the ones where he has little creative control - Andaz Apna Apna, Rangeela, Dil Chahta Hai, Qayamat se Qayamat tak, among others.

    Being the conservative that I am, I am very wary of any type of message film. And this wariness stems from a deep distrust of human wisdom and discretion.

    The more "masala" the film, the greater it's creative merit. The more commercial the film, the greater it is in my eyes. To me, the only culture worth celebrating is "commercial" culture.

    1. hahahaha...i think u nailed Aamir. But, how do u explain being a conservative on one hand and you having deep distrust of human wisdom and discretion? Does it mean you would rather find meaning in what a crowd thinks than those who beat their chests about individuality?

    2. "Does it mean you would rather find meaning in what a crowd thinks than those who beat their chests about individuality?"

      Yes, the crowd possesses a wisdom that individuals may lack. The individual may be foolish. But the species is wise. The Prejudices and the biases of the crowd represent distilled wisdom and experience.

    3. Yeah, I are rather objective on this...the species with its grotesque biases and prejudices is very wise for sure

    4. Well not always.

      Sometimes the wisdom of the species may get out-of-date as circumstances and the "vaatavaran" changes. Eg : Sati, restrictions on Widow marriage, triple talaq, etc. Which is why we need you guys - the liberals :) To make some noise, and to course-correct the species!

      But then it's a fine balance. THe wisdom of the species has to be weighed against the dictates of individual reason.

      Eg : Take 3 idiots. Aamir pounces on our education system and lambasts "ROte learning" as the great evil of our times. Being a conservative, I take a more cautious approach. I ask myself - why do we have rote learning in the first place? Were people who evolved the current system stupid? No. Maybe rote learning serves some purpose? Maybe rote learning has its virtues? We should factor all of that in, and then weigh that carefully against the evils of rote-learning which ofcourse are obvious to many of us. And then push for incremental change.

      Aamir doesn't do this. He trusts his own reason. To hell with tradition and the wisdom of institutions. Let's change the system. Let's have a different pedagogy! Let's head to the Brave new World. That's heedless radicalism.

    5. I was thinking and I more or less agree with your list of Aamir's good work. One more movie has to be added to it. 1947: Earth is among Aamir’s best performances, to me. I really felt I was looking at a character and not the actor. And, his character is that of a beast – a really raw and earthy one with horrible intentions, which he brings alive superbly. But, again, I think he had little control on the overall movie in this case too

  2. Shrikanth: and I'm in a dangerous position now - that of agreeing with nearly everything you said.

  3. Haha.

    By the way, some truly cerebral actors / directors in Indian cinema. People whose work makes me think - Basu Chatterjee, Phani Majumdar (very left-wing director who I like a lot ironically!!), Amol Palekar, Dharmendra, Ashok Kumar, Mehmood, Motilal, Meena Kumari, Vyjayanthimala, Raaj Kumar, even Rajendra Kumar..

    Their work makes me think really really hard. Far greater artists, each one of them, than Aamir Khan.

    1. Rajendra Kumar? Seriously?

    2. Yep. Raaj has a better ouevre than Aamir. Anyday. Probably not a as good an actor as Aamir. But his films make me think harder than Aamir's.

      Oonche Log, Dil Ek Mandir, Paigham, Ardhangini, Dil Apni Preet Parai, Zindagi, Gharana, Waqt, Mother India.

      Each one of these is more watchable than 3 Idiots or Taare Zameen Par.

    3. "Rajendra Kumar? Seriously?"

      Yes. Again, as with Raaj kumar, maybe not as talented as Aamir. But a better ouevre. Films I suggest -

      Humraahi, Gharana, Zindagi, Talaq, Sangam, Saathi, Aas ka Panchhi, Mere Mehboob, Dhool ka Phool, Dil Ek Mandir, Aarzoo, Kanoon, Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, Jhuk Gaya Aasman, Goonj Uthi Shehnai...

  4. It has to be said though that Dangal has at least attempted a nuanced depiction of the arc of a sportsman's rise by Indian film standards. Avoided the easy temptation of showing a linear curve to inevitable stardom as done in films like MSD/Victory or even Iqbal.

    1. yes, of course - no argument that it had nuance too. Overall though, I still prefer the first half of MS Dhoni to most of this film (if it makes any sense to compare half of one film with the whole of another!)

  5. I saw this movie a few days ago and never thought about it from this angle. I went to watch it just because I had to and left without an opinion or any thoughts other than not regretting the time and money spent on it. But after reading this, I do realise how this "social message" is everything but what we preach. How the nation proudly glorifies the story as they tasted victory but if the father was anything that you described and the girls would have succumbed to injuries or taken to depression for the obvious reasons, the same story would still be used as a social message of how to never put the burden of your dreams on the young shoulders and allow them the freedom to choose their path. Hypocrisy eh? I'm glad to have read this. Bravo 🖒

    1. Anjali: yes, and to a degree this is an inbuilt problem in any inspirational sports film. For every one person who wins a gold medal or some other big title after years of hard struggle and sacrifice, there are countless others who never achieve those things despite giving it all they have. So it can be argued that the only decent/empathetic way of presenting such a story would be by avoiding the inspirational, big-picture messages altogether. But of course, that's almost impossible to do when making a mainstream film about someone who did achieve big things.

    2. Crossed my mind too. Exact antithesis of taare zameen par.

  6. I was watching the Ramesh Sippy production Shakti today. For the first time! Strange that I missed out on it all these days.

    Now Shakti is what might qualify as an out-and-out commercial film in the eyes of many. Yet, it is a greater work of art than all of Amir Khan's productions put together! A movie that has many subtle and profound things to say about relationships, duty, love, and Dharma, while never for a second turning preachy or pretentious.

    Now that's art. That's movie making at its best. Not monstrosities like Taare Zameen Par, or PK.

    1. Okay, now you're losing me. I like Shakti a lot too, but better than all of AK's productions put together?

    2. :) That was rhetorical. But you get the drift. The way my mind works is - a small patch of self-righteous crap in an otherwise decent film causes me to repel from it.

      What do you think is Aamir's best film? Andaz Apna Apna?

  7. Comparing Dangal with other sports films like Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha thing I must say in favour of the took me into the very fabric of the film as it did the audience around me. None of the other films evoked the kind of response from cineplex audiences like Dangal did...standing for the national anthems, clapping at various points in the film. Child abuse? A slightly strong term I think. I agree that children should be left free to choose what they want to do, etc. But think about a place like where the two girls were brought up....what other choice did they have except get married at a very young age and have to live with a man they'd never seen till the day they got married. I definitely did not agree with the deviation from fact - about the coach being portrayed as the villain. Which is where Dhoni scored over Dangal - completely believable. But maybe in the process of narrating a story with such diligence, the film lost out on the one thing audiences react to - emotion.

  8. //at least until I’m 70 and senile and become convinced that Aamir should have done a Kamal Haasan and played all five roles himself// this is really funny. I think Aamir might have done it if he was in South India.

  9. Child abuse is a very harsh term. This is a film about a father trying to realise his sporting dreams through his daughters rather than the sons he does not have. He sees potential in the daughters and goes on to bully them into reaching their potential. And please remember that this is a true story. The Phogat girls have repeatedly said that the haanikaarak bapu in the film is depicted in a far milder manner than the real one. The girls have talked about initially resenting their father's harsh methods, but in time got round to appreciating him. And how different is Mahavir from the father of the Williams sisters, the tennis champs groomed through a low income childhood spent playing on public tennis courts in the US?

    And as for the caricature characterisation of the coach -- I feel that there is a grain of truth in it. In a recent interview that appeared at, the Phogat girls spoke about the father being disbarred from attending the final matches. In fact Mahavir feels strongly that it was his forced absence that led to Babita being denied a gold medal, having to be content with silver. And all the Phogats have repeatedly contended that the film is 98 percent a reflection of the truth. Which means that except for the last scene ( the father being lured and shut up in a cloak room), all else in the film is true.

    Scroll down towards the end parts of this interview above -- and it seems that the film version merely depicts an exaggerated version of the truth.

    Incidentally coach Sondhi ( the disgruntled gentleman who has made his annoyance plain to the media), has actually spoken about Mahavir's insistence on continuing with his own training methods, thus clashing with the techniques used by coaches at Patiala -- and the necessity of temporarily banning Mahavir.

    Dangal is a film that should have shut up the sneering hate brigade, but no, the snobby attitude continues, as evinced in the comments.

    This is the problem with ' liberal' critics. I am a liberal myself, but I can sense liberal bs ing. A film like The Lunchbox -- I loved it but found it hard to take at facevalue, the character of a middle class housewife who has this continuous Lunchbox- platonic relationship with an unknown Indian man. Add to it the one note drone of Irfan Khan, the darling of the liberal Hindi film viewer. I like him, but prefer Nawazuddin. Irfan is all right.

    Aamir is of course beneath value, worthy of contempt. He is in a hard place -- between snobs and Bhakts.

    Still, the majority have spoken.

  10. Lalsub: and here you are again, right on cue, defending Aamir like a Mama Lion, as you have so many times in the past, both here and on Facebook - welcome! Nice long comment, but it makes me wonder if you actually read my post or just skimmed through it, registered a sentence or two, and decided "here goes this faux-liberal criticising poor AK again".

    Actually, no, I'm not wondering - I already know.

    P.S. Shrikanth above, who has written far harsher things about Aamir than I would, is definitely not a "liberal snob" and not, in my view at least, a "bhakt" either. But carry on with the categorisations that make you feel cosily indignant and help you indulge in this nonsensical idea that one of the most widely admired public figures in the country is some sort of poor victim.

    (Speaking of which, do you see the massive contradiction in the last two sentences of your comment? Aamir, poor thing, is "in a hard place" - but also, "the majority have spoken".)

  11. No, I am not a Mama Lion, much as you may categorise me. And I did not critique your piece as much as the general tone of the comments. You have actually been quite kind/ fair to Aamir.

    When I said that the majority have spoken in favour of the film, I meant that despite the bhakts and the snipers, the film and the actor have won.

  12. Agree closely with your views on 'Dangal' and the bulk of Aamir's body of work in the last 15 years. Some directors manage to make very strongly message oriented or issue-based films without comprising on the film's artistry. I do think that many of Aamir's films are message-oriented in a way that undermines them. Most of the time though, it's easy enough to get on board with the message; something like 'Taare Zaameen Par' which was entertaining enough and had some nice moments. Even with an appallingly bad film such as '3 idiots' we can get on board with the basic theme: shouldn't make your kids get into professions they have no aptitude for and no interest in.

    In 'Dangal' there is ambivalence about the message as well, and positive irritation at Aamir's Mahavir Phogat in the 2nd half. 'Rang De Basanti' was another one of those films which elicited a very mixed response: an act of revenge shouldn't be what inspires the nation to change. It's true that the corrupt politician those guys killed was responsible for many deaths and prolly would have gotten off scott-free and none of the questions the film posits have easy answers. However, I think I'm stating the obvious when i say that everyone taking the law into their own hands like that would lead to a state of anarchy, a total break down of the system and worse abuse of power (in whoever's hands).

    Even so Aamir is undoubtedly responsible for some good entertaining films. E.g. Lagaan. Would one call ‘Lagaan’ a richly layered thought provoking film? Not at all. I regard it as a one time watch. But it remains a well made and well told story; and making it was no cake walk. Aamir derives credit for things like that. I don’t know how much creative control Aamir exerted over ‘Rangeela’ but his contribution to that movie, as an actor, was very substantial. Just as Ashok Kumar and Motilal were actors; they had clout obviously and might have been able to influence other aspects of the film, but their contribution was primarily as actors.

    'Andaz Apna Apna' is an all time classic in my eyes and Aamir was excellent in it. 'Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke' is another 90's Aamir film I'm fond of.

  13. Let's just accept it that Aamir got to know about some very basic issues like poverty, poor education system only in his 30s and hence he reacts like that to it even in his 50s. It's a recent realisation. He said after watching Slumdog India isn't like this. He just have to go to Bandra East to see what India is like. I have seen him choking at events talking abt poor treatment meted out to young kids. Those tears, if they had come from a 15-21 year old, just out of kiddo phase moving to a phase in which you can reflect upon your past, would have seemed believable. No human I know behaves like Aamir in that age bracket. It's tough to merely watch him speak in interviews.

  14. Liberals are right about saying WHAT is right & WHAT should happen.
    But never listen to Liberals on HOW to achieve them.
    Let the DOERs do it.

  15. Jai, about the caricature coach, I haven't read a single person say it may actually depict the truth. As individual sports go, how many great coaches are we aware of? Our latest individual studs - Saina, sindhu, srikanth - have been with Gopichand since they were kids. If they'd been handed to the Badminton Federation coaches, you want to bet that they'd still be so successful? Yeah, I know Saina is with Vimal Kumar now, but that's after she became a star.

    The problem with federation appointed coaches is that they are uniformly lazy. It's much more convenient for them to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to coaching. Individual sports demand a historical, in-depth understanding of each player's strengths and weaknesses. If there had been any culture of the childhood coach continuing to be consulted, it would be fine. But apart from stray cases in cricket, that's not how our high-handed sports bodies operate.

    In my view, the caricature is merely an accurate representation of majority attitudes. Do I know they actually behave like that? No. I'm just inferring from our glorious results over 7 decades in individual sports.

  16. My thoughts EXACTLY. You just saved me from the trouble of having to verbalise them.

    I liked the first half, but even then I could sense that something was off. This is the same Amir Khan who taught us that every child is potentially the light of the universe. (However, in India, that potential seems to be subject to the will of our parents.) What if the girls had wanted something different for themselves? The film seems to justify the view point that one should listen to one's parents because they know better than us.

    I knew Geeta was being set up for a lesson in morality during the sequence in which she steps outside her home for the first time and gets a taste of independent life. I could identify with her because I made all the same 'mistakes'. Only in my case, I should have been studying (and getting good grades), instead of trying my hand at quizzing or writing or generally thinking things through.

    The unmistakable hyper-nationalist tone of the second half ruined the movie for me. What was that press conference before the final match all about? No self-respecting coach or athlete would ever behave in such a condescending fashion. Artistic licence and suspension of belief have their limits. Especially when you are watching a movie that is inspired by real-life events.

    I think many of Amir Khan's movies tend to get carried away by their need to convey a message. So much so that they forget that no message is that simple.