The Dangal Debate : Khan-ism, Realism, Feminism & Patriarchy

Posted: December 24, 2016 by moifightclub in bollywood, cinema, In Defense
Tags: , , , ,

Aamir Khan film. Trailer looked great. Inspiring story of Phogats. These were the top 3 reasons why we booked FDFS tickets of Nitesh Tiwary’s Dangal. When we say we, it means 4 of us. But as we came out of the theatre, we found ourselves on different sides of the fence. As we are quite down in the bollywood food chain (say ADs/Assistant Directors and such), we asked mFC if our discussion can be posted anonymously. Nobody wants to hear the bad words. So why burn our blood and careers so early.

Read it only after you have seen the film, and let us know where do you stand.




Yes, the film is good and it really excels in performance and direction. I was riveted throughout except the cringe worthy climax. And I did feel it was really long.

Anyway, I have been thinking about it and there’s something that has been bothering me in the way women are presented in the film. I am aware that my reading is a little too ultra feminist but I did feel strongly about certain things. Here goes:

Though the film harps about being pro-feminist, it does so by still putting the men in control of the women. Sakshi Tanwar’s character completely shadows Mahavir. I would have loved to see some sign of revolt or at least a conscience. She is devoid of one and only allowed to play her strength through looks. The only time she is shown to have genuine anger and a rebel is when Mahavir is cooking chicken in the house. To a certain extent, I buy this because women from this world don’t have a say. But there could be a take, there could be a way to show some indictment. One example: She could have gone to Commonwealth Games to watch her daughter play. It’s in Delhi, not very far. Even the chicken seller shows up with his daughters with prasad to see Geeta wrestle. That bit of fiction would have been redeeming for the consistent lack of importance given to Sakshi’s character. But no, because nothing can come in the way of Mahavir’s glory.

One thing was smart that they used humour to hide the torture that Mahavir inflicts on the girls. You cringe when the boys make lewd comments at Geeta playing in a local match but find it utterly cute when Haanikaarak plays. Imagine watching the Haanikaarak video without the actual song and those cute lyrics. Watch the video imagining it with a empathetic violin piece. Add the cutting of the hair and the cousin being slapped at the wedding to the song montage. Aamir would have then sounded like the way his character actually is – a tyrant imposing his dreams. But then he has to be the hero. So yeah, smartly played.

The girls are constantly instructed what to do and how to play. Their personal transition of being forced to play to actually wanting to play seriously is given just a mere exposition scene. It feels so untrue. Aamir’s motives and choices are neatly etched out but the girls only hear their friend talk about freedom and have a change of heart. Their change is not so organic. And you can’t suddenly show your docile girls to be tomboys beating up neighbourhood kids. Least of parents see it. If they had shown Mahavir observing his daughters showing a streak of becoming wrestlers over the years, it would have been nice. Here in one scene they become nose breaking tomboys.

I felt so nice that Geeta revolts and questions Mahavir’s technique. The father daughter wrestling is the best scene in the film. It would have been so nice to see that Mahavir could go wrong. Like show a culmination of old ways realising there is some good in the new ways. But Aamir is right all the time. The film talks about less support from the state. But the institution such as the National Sports Academy is rendered completely useless and evil. Showing a caricature of a villain only heightens Mahavir’s heroism. It feels so deliberate/clever and not organic for a coach to behave like that. I would have loved it if Mahavir is shown agreeing to there being some merit in Geeta’s new techniques. It would have really emphasized the need of formal institutionalised training that this country so badly needs.

And then the final match: the coach and Mahavir are constantly playing on their egos to steer her match. Shut up! Stop confusing the girl. If she has willfully become a champion, she would have developed craft by herself. She may have her own technique. She is shown completely as a robot playing on the ego of these two men. The film realises it should have a conscience and gives one scene where Geeta plays on her own technique/volition. But even this is shown by a flashback where a drowning Geeta is told by Mahavir to become independent and her father is not going to be there all the time (by the way when you are under water you can’t hear from the outside). She remembers this and fights back. Even that show of individual drive is Mahavir’s glory. Imagine a scene where she would have remembered being bullied by some boys and she fights them all by herself. If she remembers this and had fought back in the match, it could have been her volition and not Mahavir’s conscience dictating her.

Even her win felt more Mahavir’s victory than the girls’. Yes the film is played through Mahavir’s point of view but I was constantly being bothered about the women showing no conscience. Yes, it is a true story and that’s how this part of the world is but as the makers you got to show some take. Even a sense of an indictment. The only flaw the film revels in showing is that Mahavir is stubborn and ego headed maniac but only to hammer down the point that Mahavir NEEDED to be that way to have won the medals. As if the film is saying that girls will have to listen to the men around them in order to become heroes, because if you are known as a weaker sex, you don’t have a conscience too.



But read any inspiring sports story where one has achieved anything. PVSindhu (she wakes up at 4am, doing that since she was a kid) or Agassi, without tyrant parent (starts with parents, kids – how will they know what potential they have) or coach (mostly dad/male coach), nothing is possible. It’s life of a monk. There is really no other way.

Easy to see everything through feminist prism. But if it was a guy wrestler and his dad/coach was being tyrant, it wont be a big thing, right? Parents thrusting their choices remain.

But the point is in most individual sports, all athletes are like blind runners without their coach. Starting from 0 to 100, every step belongs to coach/dad/whoever. Again, there is no other way. At least i have never read any story.

Aamir becomes that gyaani baba in 3 Idiots, PK, TZP, but here i don’t agree.

And if that meat seller has come with his daughter to see the match, why is that character not worthy of feminist lens? The meat seller, daughter, both.

Also are you forgetting the entire first half – Aamir’s character fighting against entire system, society, men, office – just the idea that women can wrestle.
Do you realise how daring and daunting thought that is? That’s the most feminist thing one can do. The thought to empower the girls.



I am not at all questioning the tyrannical way of coaching a sports person. We are saying it is smartly done in a commercial film. Nahin toh agar Whiplash jaisa karte toh you won’t sympathise with Aamir.

I am not so sure about coach being everything. Yes, off the match/game, surely. But once they are on the field, it is just them, right? Would you say that all boxers do exactly as told by their coach (just comparing for proximity with the player)? Initially, yes. But over the time, they will have developed instinct/technique, which is why they become what they eventually become. In that case we would have manufactured so many Usain Bolts and Muhammad Alis by now.

Meat seller – I will not argue about why he came to the match. Surely it is a nice touch but just that Geeta’s mother can’t make it but meat seller can make it to the match is what I felt odd about. This may be too much of nitpick, I agree.

And not denying at all that Mahavir didn’t fight the world but it was to satisfy his ego. To ensure his daughters gold on his behalf. I don’t think it came from a pro-feminist place. I am talking about other things in the film. Read Tanul Thakur’s piece. He has also spoken on similar lines.

On casting, Girish Kulkarni was a total misfit for me. I just couldn’t buy him as the coach. He just didn’t have the personality. The character was anyway so stupid. Also the guy Aamir wrestles right at the start. I also think that the credit goes to their accent and wrestling training more than casting.



I read his piece. You too talking the same. I don’t agree. Except that pre-climatic twist, I didn’t have much problem with anything.

Why is it ego? Why is it not aim or ambition or dream? Because ego has negative connotation. Why isn’t even Phogat celebrated as a feminist hero. Because he is not urban or smart or suave or articulate or he doesn’t know the F-word. The starting point might have been his dreams of gold but what that has done for girls there, I don’t think any govt policy could have.

Haryana has the worst sex ratio.

Haryana also has the biggest Olympic contingent of female athletes.

Compare the two numbers and read a bit.

It’s amazing what sports has done. That too in the worst patriarchy society.

It’s not fair to put white man’s feminism definition in the context of Phogat. It’s like demonetization idea. Look at his context. His education, society, culture, upbringing, gender sense. I am saying in that place even to think that his daughters could go out and wrestle, that thought is much stronger than bra burning feminism ideas.



Oye! Don’t go out of the context of the film. We are only reading him as a character. You guys are clubbing him with the real life of Phogat.

Ego because you are making someone do something without their willingness. Replace sport with say, aeronautical engineering. Or let’s say my dad forced me into becoming IAS officer because he could never become one. That doesn’t remain ambition alone.



But he is based on real character! If he was fictional, you could have asked the writer director. Here it’s him only. How can you separate the two.

Sports kids starting early? It’s grey area for sure. And it always happens in all sports. Don’t think this film is even aspiring to find the answers to those questions. So why burden it?

Are we going in loop?

We need to hear more voices.

Have you seen Dangal? What do you think? Do join our debate in the comments section.

  1. A bit part sportsperson from Haryana turned engineer MBA says:

    I understand the feminist grumblings especially of people who have experienced freedom, been part of understanding families etc. They will find it untrue and the story kinda half baked holding back on full on gender equality…and they will also make this dunderheaded mistake of believing that this movie is feminist.. no it’s not.. it’s telling a sanitised version of a true story.. the same father who takes pride in his girl’s sports achievement might not think twice before slitting her throat if she elopes with some lower caste boy.. you wanted to see that version of reality or this sanitised version.. thank Amir for that. Try to understand the milieu before ranting and overworking your hypocrisy detectors. I have played sport in such setup since I was 7, I know how a career in sports is an existential issue for so many young haryanavis.. it’s Do or Die for them.. it’s better to be in a middling safe government job with your pride in your sporting achievements intact..rather than driving Ola in Gurgaon or working late nights as a bouncer in a club on MG road.. forget bati bachao, selfie with daughtwr etc..sports is the only successful policy in Haryana which has contributed to any sort of gender equality.. there is no glass ceiling, no limits, you do well, command respect, get a good government job, marry a better sportsman who has a better government job and give back to the game in some way.. not a bad way to make something out of in a community “Jahan ladki banke paida hone se achha hai mar jaana(words of a haryanavi well educated girl I knew and respected)”

  2. fattiemama says:

    Dangal is about a patriarchal man trying to do something very non-patriarchal in a patriarchal society. That does not automatically make it a feminist film or a film about women empowerment. He does whatever he does not because he thinks that is the right thing to do but because he wants to so he thinks what’s wrong in that. There is a slight difference which is quite big. As said above, ‘the same father who takes pride in his girl’s sports achievement might not think twice before slitting her throat if she elopes with some lower caste boy’ – that’s exactly the kind of father Aamir plays right till the end.

  3. gtcdong says:

    agree with the comments more than the actual writeups 🙂

  4. Screenwriter says:

    I understand the criticisms of the film, but I do seek to further investigate the context in which the characters operate. In what society does Mahavir find himself? I could be led to believe that Mahavir’s family and friends – if we had seen more of them – would have advised him to jettison his newborn children because they were female. Or a less extreme consideration would be to ship his daughters off as brides (or child brides). For Mahavir, not pursuing either of these options could be considered to be a minor victory in and of itself (I tend to think of progress in relative, not absolute terms). For me, the film doesn’t do a great job of showing context in order to improve accessibility.

    Also, the film seems to assume that the audience knows what these characters are thinking.
    I would have loved to have got into the mind of Mahavir a little more. Apart from the obvious desire of missing out on a medal and wanting to win it vicariously through his children, we don’t get to go much further into his deeper needs. What is is he afraid of? What drives him? Societal ridicule? Failure? Being a father of girls? Outdated techniques? Growing old? Challenges to his belief system? The complexity of having a girl (over a boy)? Fearful of the latent power of women? Surely for all his sure footedness when confronting national coaches, event organizers, and government agents, he must be hiding some vulnerability. The character stakes are somewhat low. How is he vindicated (if at all) through the (rather predictable) finale? If Geeta had not won the final, does he still lose?

    Similarly, some of Geeta’s thought processes could have been sharper as well. For instance, if young Geeta were to have experienced the above mentioned context (e.g. seeing a string of her friends being married off as soon as they were eligible), Geeta’s motivation to pursue wrestling would have been clearer (to her and the audience) as she would have been smart enough to realize that her father was offering her a path towards a (seemingly) richer life. Instead, we get a one-off wedding, a slap from father, and a lecture from a “foresaken” girl. We don’t really get to see her make a proper decision based on clear thinking and experience. What life does she want to live? What will she choose?

    One of the reasons why the film feels long for me is that once the conflict between father and daughter is resolved, there isn’t much left to sustain our interest apart from the obvious. I found the “Mahavir vs. Coach” conflict not very well developed and lacking clarity. For instance, does Mahavir knows the coach as he’s been a national champion? Maybe Mahavir has been living in a bubble of self-pity after his earlier loss? Or has he? What’s their relationship? Why is it so frosty? Why is the coach so against his advice? I thought it interesting, but wasn’t explored fully. He’s very two dimensional at times and underutilizes the talent they lined up to play him (the talented Girish Kulkarni).

    In a film like this (with a known, predicable ending) we need more than plot to drive complexity. We need complexity in character. Perhaps it was shaped in this way for commercial reasons, but I feel this film could have dug even deeper. Thumbs up for the effort.

    *Semi-spoiler* As an aside, many audience members stood up during the playing of the national anthem (within the film)… and I didn’t see this in India. “Respect the flag” was one cry.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Aamir khan moment locked in room listening to national anthem is very similar to this. Watch till 7:07

  6. Kranthi Aravelli says:

    The Movie has serious issues and the climax is forced and artificial.
    But the characterisations cannot be suger coated to potray them as pro-feminist or perfect. The story isn’t about the ideal, perfect human being with good values. They are real people and imperfect, like we all are.

    I think this is digging too deep to find issues. And I wish the criticism is more focused on other aspects of film than the moral values of characters.

  7. FactorX says:

    I think we are mistaking it to be a solution movie . It is the movie which shows the problem.The story is about how patriarchs fight patriarchy to full fill their dreams. The movie is like in our society girls can do stuff but ultimately wheather they achieve or not depends on whether men supports them or oppose them. Unfortunately in most part of Asia it’s a reality. So in that aspect I don’t have a problem with the movie. A movie can be without a solution.
    I think the problem is in the way the movie is being promoted and people are receiving it. They are promoting and people are receiving it like an achievement movie/ a solution movie. The movie shows the triumph of Phogats’ hardship and determination but it also shows a society where many girls may not be able to achieve their ‘ full potential’. It would have been very helpful if Aamir had promoted that angle also.

  8. amit kumar says:

    What about making a villain for no reason just to make more formulaic film..poor coach of geeta..will get trolled for no reason( dhoni was much better in this aspect)..also in CWG there is no such day break between bouts or wresstlers don’t get privileges of press conferences so such mockery of this difficult sport is uncalled for..also an insult to sweat and blood which sushil,yogeshwar and sakshi gave for India by winning bouts after bouts in a single day..

  9. Reply to the Fab india girl AD

    Your arguments regarding Geeta receiving coaching from two different coaches ,both telling her to do different things can be quite confusing indeed .
    but i want throw some light on the whole coaching & player instinct topic.i’ve been a avid football viewer for more than 10 years.IMHO coaching varies wrt to individual athletes .One player in the team might need a hand on the shoulder approach ,another might need the boot to get the best out of them .There are times where you have a perfectly talented player paired with a great coach but sometimes it doesn’t quite work out .But when a player surpasses his potential and achieves more than he himself thought was capable you can’t but applaud the coach. Simply put its all about players natural talent and coach creating a conducive atmosphere to maximize his potential .

    Now coming to dangal .Geeta’s natural game is a attacking one ,when you make a naturally attacking player play defensive its only normal that their game drops a notch .But she is certainly capable of switching it up as shown in the semi final .Mahavir might not be the greatest coach for ever but he certainly is for geeta .

    For a highly talented athlete it takes only a second to see a spark in an other.Mahavir certainly knows his game inside out .He loves the sport ,he is dedicated his whole life to it.And for a person of that level one incident is enough to see his girls have a natural inclination to it without them even realizing it .It’s not the incident of beating up those kids but the how of what did makes him take the decision.It’s what you call a flicker of talent .It felt organic ,Cos he didn’t see champions he saw talent .

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