'Papa' kehte hai 'women's exclusive show' karega.
As I have been pegged the office “angry feminist”, I was asked to write an article about the all-female screening of Dangal on Wednesday the 4th of January. The film is based on the true story of internationally acclaimed female wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat, and their father Mahavir Singh Phogat. The promise of strong female characters persevering in a male dominated sport, combined with a slightly obvious marketing ploy directed towards woman like myself, piqued my interest. So I jumped into the Uber and five minutes later... my mother called. She asked me the normal few dozen questions about my safety, going all the way from Bandra to Andheri in a car, in the middle of the day! No one said feminists can’t have a few contradictions in their lives.
The car-ride awarded me a little time to consider ‘a women-only’ screening. I couldn’t quite understand the need for one, it seemed a tad patronizing and an attempt at commercializing a watered down idea of female empowerment. Then again, the fact that this scheme was contained to a ‘whopping’ total of three screens in the city, added fuel to my indifference.
Empty Box Office
Breezing in, I grabbed popcorn at an empty concession stand and walked into the desolate theater. The lights dipped and the film started. Now before I air my views, I would like to preface it with the fact that I genuinely enjoyed this movie. I laughed and cried at all the right places (even if it was often the background score commanding me to do so). It was well shot and directed with an amusing (albeit redundant) narrator and remarkable performances from all the child actors. But since the things that vex people are a lot more fun to read about and certainly a lot more fun to write about, here I go.
Mahavir Singh Phogat’s habit of living vicariously through his children is something for a psychiatry ward and perhaps a straitjacket. Unable to have lived his dream of becoming a wrestler himself, he forces it down his daughters’ throats. There is nothing wrong with wanting good things for your children, but when these ‘good things’ have to align perfectly with the washed up dreams you had for yourself, it is incredibly disturbing. The film attempts to portray the man’s obsession as progressive and fails. What we are left with is the age old story of a father telling his kids what to do, with no care or concern for their opinion. Some more fodder for psychiatrist’s couches, Phogat has some serious anger issues. He starts fights at the slightest provocation and his young daughters are basically terrified of him. Of course he only ‘almost’, back-hand slaps his daughter at one point, but restrains himself, so we are still supposed to see him as a good person.
Regular sports movie tropes and montages plague the first half of the film. Training montages, the girls trying to get out of training montages, misgivings montages, ring building montages, eating montages, and a few others. This structure of predictability continues past the point where the girls see the ‘error’ of their ways, and finally decide to give Kushti their all.
Then we come to, in my opinion, the best part of the film, when a young Geeta Phogat kicks ass. After losing her first fight in the Akhada, the competitive spirit of the young fighter is irreversibly illumined. Moving us into… yet another montage… but a really good one, Geeta dominates in the ring, over and over and takes her rightful place, front and center of the film, with her father walking behind her. The film then flashes forward, and it is all downhill from there. The charming and confident Phogat girls are reduced to annoyingly quiet and demure adults. The actors portraying adult Geeta and Babita have so few lines I could probably have counted them, and most of them were “Papa”, anyway.
Movie on female wrestling-who'd have guessed
Geeta gets admitted into and goes to the National Sports Academy of India, which her father hates. Because, of course, what good is it to have a daughter who follows the exact plan you laid out for her, when you can’t micromanage everything she does?
Almost half way into the film we are introduced to our overtly dramatic and completely unbelievable antagonist, the coach, Pramod Kadam. He is petty, stupid and completely inept at his job. For a sports film, the film makers don’t seem to believe in a coach- student relationship whatsoever.
The second half of the film can be condensed quite simply. The physical separation and a change in Geeta’s attitude puts a strain on her relationship with her father, and of course, she cannot win without her daddy (or “Papa” a word I will never be able to disassociate with this film). She loses match after match because she doesn’t have her father’s support and has forgotten his teachings (something that did not happen in reality). Only when she and her father reconcile, and he leaves home and helps her train, does she win.
The climax of the film is the final round of the 2010 Common Wealth games. Mahavir Singh Phogat’s training pays off and Geeta faces the same opponent she lost to in her first international fight, an opponent the film forgot to build up at all, except at the last possible moment. The evil coach upset that Geeta is listening to her father instead of him, (even though if she won, he would become the coach that led the team to a gold medal) decides to sabotage everything (like I said, completely unbelievable) and locks Mahavir Singh Phogat into a closet, making him miss his daughter’s fight. Meanwhile, the completely dependent Geeta looks longingly into the stands for her father and yet again begins to lose. When all seems lost, she reaches into her past and remembers that her father once told her as a child, that she would have to do things without him, (even though he had spent the rest of his life saying the complete opposite) and makes a miraculous recovery and wins the gold, fulfilling not her own, but her father’s dream.
Here's to embracing gender stereotypes for free coffee
On the whole, watching the movie was an enjoyable experience but a little disappointing, when I analyse the film’s depiction of women. So what did I learn? Women can do anything, as long as they completely abandon any desires that they may have of their own and listen to their ‘Papa’ (he knows better than even a national level coach). Everything a woman struggles for is only validated, if at the end of everything, your father can be proud of you.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have given the movie this much flak if it hadn’t been advertised as a ‘woman only screening’. Maybe my expectation of a portrayal of stronger women in the movie, was fueled by advertising that did not deliver.
I don’t know… but at least, being a ‘woman’ I got a free coffee and a cookie.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Shara Sethna
Photographs by Yash Bandi & Shara Sethna