(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
Every star – original or not, established or not, in quotes or without – has an “entry” scene. Our cinema is a creature of habit and this is one that we may never let go. Maybe because there is still something clicking in our hearts and minds when this happens, especially with an old world star. Aamir Khan has one in Dangal. An old world star gets an entry decorated by old world charm. It is 1988. We rotate and twist antennas to get hold of that elusive signal for the television to catch a discernible image. Someone in the terrace of Mahavir Singh Phogat’s (Aamir Khan) office is doing this job and Mahavir is checking the television. When moving images appear on screen, director Nitesh Tiwari cuts to Aamir Khan saying “aa gaya!“. If that isn’t a handshake protocol between cinema and one of its biggest stars, what is?
Beyond that it is all Tiwari. The material is perfunctory but what he does with it is extraordinary at least till the halfway point of the film. A makeshift wrestling ring is carved out of office space for a bout set to the commentary of a contest between US and Russia (small detail someone missed: Soviet Union actually) during the finale of the Cold War. It is hard to look away when a stereotypical biopic is injected with so much zestful enthusiasm. It has all the traditional cues – reluctant participants, disciplined training to the point of being tortuous, one man (or two women?) against the world, trust issues et al. But all of this is sprinkled with energetic commercial cues, humor and flavored like the chicken that the girls’ cousin prepares for them. The song – particularly its lyrics – Haanikaraak Bapu is so much fun even if it takes upon very serious issues. A conversation, a rebellion, a pitiful request from two kids transpires over one song that conveys all the empathy that needs to be conveyed in less than five minutes. That wrestling is in their (Geeta and Babita Kumari played by Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar, both rising up to the pulse of the film) blood is shown almost as an offhand, when to get out of the routine they hate so much, they say – ab dangal hoga.
Tiwari’s handling of time is worth savoring and learning from. For a quasi-biopic, he rarely puts text on screen and never the time. Instead he infuses the script with details that both convey the passage of time and moves the story along. The story begins with Seoul Olympics and the village of Balali where the winner of a local wrestling competition is awarded 20 rupees. An incompetent bureaucrat refers to his car not as car but as Maruti, a product of Haryana (where the film is set) and a symbol of post liberalization India. The changing setting and fortunes of the adult Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh) is marked by an evening of watching Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge at the National Sports Academy lounge. There is a cricket reference – golden period of Indian batting – for good measure. Dangal’s politics are simplistic which can otherwise be referred to as Aamir Khan’s bread and butter. But it is more about how it shows things than what it says. The muscles flexed in the first half continue to show off in the form of wrestling competitions staged with style and grace that Indians watch live on screen only once in four years. Maybe because rules of wrestling are complex, the bouts are accompanied by the din of commentary that literalizes almost every detail. This creates a dissonance not unlike the one in Geeta’s head about different forms of coaching – the tradition of her father’s and that of the NSA coach whose antagonistic nature is colored in the most graceless and unrelenting way imaginable. This awkwardness threatens to considerably weaken the second half that is held up only by Fatima Sana Shaikh’s performance. She moves like a wrestler, looks like a wrestler, with her chin up at all times like a competitor. She is playing the part of a wrestler but ends up coming across as technically gifted in that discipline. Everything should seem hard for her and yet nothing does. Even sweat leaves her skin reluctantly, a trait reserved for real life athletes like Federer. It is bludgeoned quite hard that Mahavir Singh Phogat is the brains behind the girls but they face their most important fight alone. I am guessing the same can be said of Aamir Khan and Nitesh Tiwari.