Dangal and its women: Aamir Khan is not always centre-stage in the film and that’s refreshing

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In the 90s, the Shah Rukh Khan versus Aamir Khan camps in my house was very clearly divided.

My uncle and my sister were staunchly against the “average looking nobody who made it by fluke” aka Shah Rukh Khan (I took grave offence to their words), while my mom and I thought Aamir was annoying and pretentious. “Why does he think so much of himself?” I’d ask my sister. She’d respond with, “At least he can act.”

I look back at the mock fights we’d have at home with wonder, given that Aamir’s films in the 90s could truly be his best (Sarfarosh, Rangeela and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar are some of his finer performance to date, according to yours truly). It also helped that there weren’t too many interviews of celebrities to fuel your fleeting feelings for them.

My mom later converted into a Salman Khan fan (“he’s so entertaining,” she’d say) and with films like 3 Idiots, Taare Zameen Par and PK, Aamir became a self-proclaimed messiah of sorts, which made me hate his righteousness even more. Taare Zameen Par was a good film, with a noble cause, no doubt. But just that all-knowing look of his was enough for me. I couldn’t take Aamir Khan seriously.

And then he went ahead and made the biggest blunder (no, I’m not referring to his intolerance comment).

In season four of Koffee with Karan, Aamir Khan appeared with his wife Kiran Rao to promote his upcoming film Dhoom 3. In it, he spoke (like he always does) about how he thought Dhoom 3 was an amazing film, and he chose it because of the script. “For me to give a great success, I have to have a great script.”

I was sold for a while. Could it be?

After walking into films like Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots and PK with many expectations, only to realise that Aamir’s righteousness overshadowed everything, and that these “films with a social message” that he kept alluding them to be, were actually formulaic commercial vehicles — could Dhoom 3 finally be that one film where he’d shed the messiah image for a genuinely good film?

I was so wrong. *cough*ThePrestige*cough*

Poster of 'Dangal'

Poster of ‘Dangal’

So, why am I meticulously talking about my dislike for Aamir Khan? Because, much to my surprise, I loved Dangal. And I walked out of the film with much respect for him.

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Aamir is famously known for the promotions of his films before hand, and it was no surprise that his transformation from a pot-bellied father to a taut wrestler would be used as a peg. However, while watching the film, it dawned upon me that all this brouhaha was for 90 seconds of screen time. 90 seconds.

Sure, the actual scene would have been much longer, and 90 seconds possibly made the cut in the larger pace of the film. But it is no mean feat to drop more than 40 kilos for just one scene. You can be as critical about its motive, execution and publicity, but I can barely drop a slice of pizza from my hand.

Aamir’s transformation is actually the least impressive thing about Dangal. If this year saw Shah Rukh Khan finally play a role that wasn’t mired in romance (atleast not the conventional boy-meets-girl romance) in Fan, and Salman Khan finally perform (even if it was a massive display of his own bravado and masculinity) in Sultan — with Dangal, Aamir Khan finally learns how to hold back.

In Dangal, he embraces a partially grey character: one whose face drops harder and harder with every girl child born in his home (Mahavir Singh Phogat had four daughters); one who, upon realising that wrestling has nothing to do with gender, takes his daughters through the most physically excruciating transformation; one who chops their hair off when they complain about lice; one who wrestles with his own daughter to prove a point.

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A scene from the song ‘Haanikarak Baapu’

It drives home the point much harder when you see the character itself going through the journey of the discovery. Unlike Amitabh Bachchan in Pink, who came with open letters to his grandchild in tow.

My one and only grouse with the excellent Chak De India! was that it deified Shah Rukh to such an extent that I was almost expecting him to pick up a hockey stick and play the finals match. He was the coach, the problem-solver and god-in-general. While that made for an entertaining watch (because Shah Rukh Khan, guys), it is fundamentally problematic for any film that calls itself feminist.

In Dangal, the run up to Geeta Phogat’s gold victory did infact put much of the credit on the father’s shoulders. We are shown how he hones their talent, he gives up the good dad tag in order to enforce discipline onto his daughters (a characteristic he consistently champions, and how in the face of an almost caricaturish villain-coach, Mahavir’s tactics for Geeta is what takes her forward into the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

So while I was enjoying watching the film, I was also fully expecting to walk out with the same issues that I had with Chak De, possible amplified because being the biggest thing about a film is Aamir Khan’s thing. But surprisingly, the last 10 minutes of the film belongs to Fatima Sana Shaikh, who plays Geeta. Not just for her performance, but plot-wise as well.

(Spoiler alert) In a bid to redeem himself and prove Mahavir Phogat wrong, her coach traps him in a room while the final match is played out, so that he is unable to instruct her on how to play her game. Previous to this, Mahavir sits in the audience giving Geeta examples of how she can better her game by playing on her natural instinct: attacking, not defending. Geeta is then left to trust her own instincts to win the game. And she does. Quite magnificently.

For a superstar like Aamir Khan to keep himself away from the climax of his film, is a big deal. And even though we should be holding our actors to higher standards, one can’t deny that any other superstar possibly wouldn’t do this.

Dangal is as much about Geeta and Babita Phogat, as it is about Mahavir. We are shown glimpses of Geeta’s growth from an awkward kid who’s fearful of her father into a girl who enters the National Sports Academy to train as a wrestler, and wrestles with said father.

We see feminine characteristics (and a crush) develop, and the film attempts to normalise it. Geeta is a girl after all, the film seems to explain. And while the story pulls the character back into her short-hair, disciplined avatar, instead of becoming something to sermonise about, it becomes a conflict point in the film. Here is a film that is letting its own story play out naturally, giving it precedence.

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Fatima Sana Shaikh plays Geeta Phogat in Dangal.

We aren’t being told that to be a good wrestler, Geeta has to abandon everything feminine. We are told that for someone who is told that wrestling is her life, a departure from that for a growing girl is only natural. We aren’t told that Mahavir Singh Phogat (and by extention Aamir, the star) is always right, and only his techniques work. We are given an age-old sports trope: the mentor’s unabashed passion for the sport, which borders on craziness. Shah Rukh had it too, in Chak De. It all makes sense in the larger point of the film.

2016 may have been a shitty year, but Aamir Khan has finally found a fan in me.

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