“Dangal” left me with an acute sense of déjà vu. It has echoes of other feel-good sports films, reminders of the hoary history of Bollywood’s “movies-with-messages” and memories of a younger Aamir Khan singing quite a different tune. But, I am also left with the strong conviction that the movie is not about empowering girls or giving them greater life and career choices; it is about something else altogether.

Ostensibly, certainly, the setting, episodes and homilies of “Dangal” are focused on encouraging women to develop their potential and become champions. Here is a story of two girls, Gita and Babita, groomed to succeed at the international level in the macho sport of wrestling in the very heartland of macho India, the State of Haryana. The State with the highest Domestic Product, which is also at the bottom of the gender empowerment scale. Where pre-natal sex selection is routinely done to weed out female foetuses.

The State with an abysmal female literacy rate, where maternal mortality is considered the normal risk of being born a woman. Where honour killings and forced marriages of young girls are the norm. And where the constitutional reservation of panchayat seats for women was circumvented very recently by forcing women without education out of such posts. No, the State in its present condition is not a pretty picture. Perhaps, Aamir Khan’s Haryana is softer and kinder than facts and statistics indicate!

Role reversal is the technique used in the movie to highlight the rarity of the girls’ achievements within this hostile environment. The principal narrator is a male cousin, the sparring partner of the wrestlers and a family confidant, and his ironic comments provide the humorous context for the reactions of the protagonists and the community.

The father’s dogged persistence is rewarded when the reluctant teenagers do a volte face and submit to his gruelling training sessions, on realizing the limited options open to girls like them-drop out of school, be forced into marriage, bear children and sink into domestic drudgery.

The community and the family gain confidence in Gita’s prowess, as the puny wrestler humbles trained opponents on the mat and rises to become the national women’s wrestling champion. And when she faces the final hurdle at the international level, she is spurred on by appropriate messages from her father: she must remember her duty to her country, she must become a role model for other hapless village women etc. etc.

Yet, somehow, none of this has an authentic ring. Viewers brought up on Bollywood messages know that they are not meant to be life changing; they are there for show only, they need not be taken seriously and they can be easily discarded when we quit the theatre.

The “movie-with-message” formula was patented to salvage the consciences of filmmakers and viewers at a time when going to movies was considered frivolous and even slightly immoral. Once it was invented, those who worked in films could pretend that they were dealing with “serious” stories imparting “lofty morals” and audiences could tell themselves that they were there not to be entertained, but for the message. In the hands of the better directors (Bimal Roy, B R Chopra, Raj Kapoor and the Anands), a formula was evolved: build a story around a “social” theme or tag on a message to the usual romantic piffle, clothe the whole in lilting music and catchy lyrics, round it off with hand-to-hand combat between the hero and villain (or a sequence in court) and watch the money roll in.

Everybody enjoyed the fun and games and everybody walked comfortably away from the bitter pill hidden in the “message”. No wonder, we hardly recollect today the messages promoted by popular films like “Barsaat”, “Shree 420”, “Jis Desh mein Ganga Behti Hain” or even “Sujata”. And “Dangal” reverts to the same tradition, as the director and audience know very well.

If empowerment is the purported theme of “Dangal”, it is clearly skin-deep. A man, who is disappointed at fathering girls, chooses to realize his unfulfilled dream of international gold through them, only when they beat up local boys and he notices their fighting spirit. Obviously, daughters come a poor second to sons and will be picked to achieve a father’s dreams only if no son is available. And while the mantle of the father falls automatically on a son, entitling him to the best attention and training, daughters must demonstrate that they have inherited their father’s qualities to be worthy of the same attention.

The message that emerges hardly promotes equal treatment for girls or their development. Fathers of daughters who see “Dangal” are being told not to abort female foetuses if they have no sons. For, one of these unwanted girls may still be the instrument by which they can achieve the father’s unrealized dreams. That is, if she has indeed acquired her father’s spirit and physical stamina. The message that is conveyed is a very small step forward for womankind; it is hardly the stairway to equality or empowerment.

The superficiality of the empowerment theme in “Dangal” is emphasized by the treatment of the girls’ mother. The archetypal wallflower, she fades into the background, shares no part of the family dream and is relegated to the periphery by the husband, daughters and community.

What a striking contrast to another filmy mother of a sports champion-the mother in Nagesh Kuknoor’s “Iqbal”. Kuknoor, (whose heroines from “Hyderabad Blues” onwards have always been feisty and independent), creates a woman, who stands up to her husband to support her son’s dream, hides him from his father’s wrath and eventually persuades the estranged father to glory in his son’s achievement. There is even the suggestion that Iqbal’s dream of cricketing fame is derived from dreams dreamt by the mother, while watching cricket during her pregnancy. Unfortunately, though, in Indian families, a “Dangal” mother is more the norm than an “Iqbal” one.

The privilege of picking a family’s dream resides, as we all know, with the person who is its power centre. Often enough, in Indian families, this is the father. And he is the person to whom children, always avid for reassurance and approval, turn. Girls, who become repositories of fathers’ dreams, adopt them eagerly, since they carry the promise of such approval.

Even an ardent feminist like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a lifelong fighter for gender equality, was tormented by her father’s refusal to recognise her public service as equivalent to that of a son’s. Those of us who have achieved our father’s unfulfilled dreams realize well enough the implications of dependence on paternal approval. Gita and Babita display the same eagerness to satisfy their father’s aspirations. Disregarding all other arguments for excelling at wrestling, we find them seeking again and again only their father’s praise; we see what it means to him and to his daughters, when Gita publicly proclaims how much she owes to his tutelage.

Apologists for Aamir Khan have pointed out the constraints exercised on forward looking Bollywood directors by the conservative Indian social environment. Had it been bolder about the empowerment agenda, “Dangal” would have bombed at the box office and its message would have been forever forgotten. These critics view the movie as one more manifestation of the thin ice of reform on which Aamir Khan skated in his landmark TV show “Satyameva Jayate”, when he placed traditionalists who oppose change side by side with more liberal voices.

One had hoped, however, for greater courage from Khan. The visual medium of cinema offers ample scope for an imaginative director to smuggle in daring viewpoints, even if it is only through a single effective shot or a revealing slice of dialogue. Techniques like this are often used by filmmakers working under harsh censorship and Aamir Khan is surely familiar with them. That he makes no attempt to flesh out the role of the girls’ mother, for example, (which he could have easily done without offending conservative sensibilities) proves that promoting gender empowerment was never his objective.

What comes through very effectively, however, as the true theme of “Dangal” is another central concern of Bollywood films and indeed of almost all Indians. This is the problem of intergenerational conflict that engulfs families, when traditional practices and social mores are threatened by migration, urbanization and rapid modernization.

The climactic point of “Dangal” is not the community’s acceptance of the success of the girl wrestlers nor even the foregone conclusion that Gita will win international acclaim. It is the episode when, Gita, trained by the Patiala coach, turns on her father and defeats him on the mat. I caught my breath at the symbolism and unexpectedness of the scene and, for a moment, dared to hope that the director had at last come to grips with real gold in his filmy career. But, the song that succeeded the overthrow of the coach-father put an end to that hope.

From that point on, Aamir Khan reverts to type as the savior of traditional values, upholding the divine right of the Indian parent to unquestioned obedience and control over the lives of children.

This is a real pity because we have here an important pressing social issue. A courageous comment on the matter from a popular figure could have made some difference to young people, being forced apart by conservative families, who meddle in career choices, marital decisions and ceremonies and every decisionmaking detail of married couples. And this is the theme on which the Khan himself has made progressive statements in past avatars.

While I watched the “Dangal” patriarch mouthing the usual platitudes on the screen and his daughter Babita advising her elder sister to submit to parental omniscience, what rose before my eyes was another picture-the juvenile persona of the same Khan, twanging a young man’s guitar and singing the plaintive lament of every adolescent before a pushy father “Papa kehte hain”.

I remembered too the clowning of three idiots, forced into vocations that did not suit their tastes. And I asked myself why the onetime champion of youthful dreams had defected to the enemy to teach us all obedience and filial servitude. When had the Khan lost his spirit and become old?

In the last analysis, therefore, “Dangal” does not rise above the level of the usual feel-good sports movie built on the standard formula. Since it has put on the garb of gender empowerment, it stands a good chance of winning the national award this year.

But, to adopt dialogue from the movie itself, Aamir Khan must show greater courage, technique and imagination if he wishes to win international recognition and take a place beside the alltime greats of world cinema.

After seeing “Dangal” Aamir Khan’s latest blockbuster, I was overcome by a sense of déjà vu. All those echoes of earlier feel-good sports movies. The hankering back to mainstream Bollywood traditions. And memories of a very different, very young Khan in other movies. I also came away with the clear conviction that, despite the story line and other appearances, this is not a film about empowering girls or increasing their life choices. It is about something quite different.

At the superficial level, of course, Aamir Khan has ticked all the right boxes. The story is about girls being groomed for and succeeding gloriously in the most macho of sports (wrestling) and it is set in Haryana, the very heart of Indian macholand. Widely known as the State with the highest Domestic Product, which is also very low on the gender empowerment index scale. Where pre-natal sex determination and abortion of female foetuses is rife, where authorities are unconcerned about abysmal female literacy, where maternal mortality is treated as the normal risk of being born a woman. Not to speak of honour killings, forced early marriages and State contravention of the legal requirement of women’s reservation in village panchayats by denying posts to uneducated women. In fact, Aamir Khan’s Haryana seems much kinder to women than these facts and statistics would indicate.

He has also made the right noises about gender empowerment. Here is a tale of two women wrestling champions told by a friendly boy cousin, initially roped in to train them as fighters, but soon brought low on the mat. It is full of ironical twists, gentle satire and humorous role reversals. We laugh at the gentle satire and role reversals and cheer with the crowd when Gita piles into sceptical male opponents and thrashes them roundly in wrestling bouts all over the State. We are suitably impressed when the reluctant girls do a volte face and decide to achieve their father’s dream after a lecture from an unfortunate classmate, who has been pulled out of school by her family and condemned to the deadly routine of marriage and children. And we listen to the final messages from the father, which (presumably) spur them on to go for gold at the international level: how they are doing it for their country, how they must become role models for their hapless sisters back home etc. etc.

(Cover Photograph: The crew of Dangal with Phogat family on whose story Dangal was made. Where is Mother Phogat?)