SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 3 JANUARY, 2017
Dangal is at the receiving end of the most outstandingly positive reviews across the media. It has also reportedly netted Rs.232 crore at the box office in its Hindi version and Rs.6.42 crore in its Tamil and Telugu-dubbed versions on the 9th day of its release.
It is the biggest hit of the year and Amir Khan’s best production till date. It is admittedly, an exceptionally well-made film from its power-packed performances to the finely nuanced direction, a tightly-knit, gritty script and well-positioned music and songs.
It carries the trademark signature of Amir Khan who can use a social issue to manipulate his viewers on the one hand and push up the box office collections on the other. The film plays to the gallery with every frame, every scene and almost every single line of dialogue that are now generously scattered across the Internet.
But Dangal is not the story of two sheroes – girls who outsmarted the boy gangs in a sport they were considered unfit purely by reason of being female. It is a “hero” film where the father, Mahavir Singh Phogat (Amir Khan) is the real hero.
Beneath the surface, however, he is an incurable and irrepressible feudal patriarch who waited for his wife to deliver the long-cherished male child so that he could train him to be a wrestler. The wife gives birth to four girls in a row. What happens to her health with poor nutrition and living conditions does not bother him at all. He states, he never says. He orders, never suggests and is not open to suggestions. He cannot tolerate questions.
When his wife refuses to allow chicken and meat and eggs to enter her purely vegetarian kitchen, he just orders his obedient nephew Om to learn cooking and cook the dishes in a different corner. So much for the nutrition of his gifted daughters. What about the other two little girls? We see him sometimes helping them out with their lessons but that’s it.
It is a chance bashing up of some eve-teasing boys by the two girls Gita and Babita that made him discover their ‘inborn’ talent to be trained as champion wrestlers. Is it not ironical that he marginalised his wife completely in every issue and terrorised his girls before even beginning to train them? His entire life is obsessed with the idea of training the girls to fulfil his own unfulfilled dreams to reach the top of the wrestling ladder in international competitions. He is hardly a father to be remembered by.
Gita and Babita are panic stricken in his presence and speak only when spoken to. They do everything at his bidding, to the extent of giving up feasting on chaats and sour pickle because wrestling does not permit such food licences. When they say that their hair comes in the way, he chops off their hair in a cruel crew cut.
Do the two growing girls thrive in their success? Or, are they conditioned to enjoy the success that is actually their father’s and their chummy cousin Omkar’s? When Gita turns rebellious after her first stint at Patiala and questions her father’s technique, she is cut off from his emotions at once/ But wait. She soon and learns through losing bouts that her father was right and her coach is wrong! Why, then send the girls to Patiala at all?
With Tare Zameen Par, Khan attacked the entire social system including parents and academia for not even knowing that a disability like dyslexia, a learning disability Ishaan Asthana suffered from, much less going about finding solutions to the problem. But Ishaan learnt to come to terms with the disability when a kind teacher (Amir Khan) who was himself dyslexic as a child, discovered that Ishaan expressed himself the best through his art. The bottom line was – do not punish your child / student without knowing what his problem is, let him bloom freely in a world filled with mainstream kids.
Famous people like Agatha Christie, William Butler Yeats, Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg was also dyslexic at one time but rose fare above their disability. Tare Zameen Par mentions some famous names in the film too. Agreed, that it drew the immediate attention of millions of Indian parents and teachers towards this learning disability. But has this brought forth any results? No because that was not Amir Khan’s aim. His aim was to hit the box office and mesmerise his audience through a carefully thought out agenda, take the blue bucks home and on to the next film.
In 3 Idiots, Khan demonstrated a tragic suicide and referred to another one repeatedly drumming it into parents not to be dictatorial about their children’s career choices but to allow them to flow with their natural likes and inclinations. The film showed how our formal education institutions were all about exams and scores and discipline and learning by rote without understanding a word of what you learn by rote. So, a very middle-class father who incurred expenses he could ill afford to educate his son in a high-end, expensive engineering college is forced to give in to his son’s wishes to switch lanes and take up wild life photography at the end of his course!
What happens to the money the father spent? Playing to the gallery all over again and how! All of us, including the females in the audience, could not suppress our laughter at the balattkar and sthana gags using rape as a joke and a woman’s breasts as a strategy to humiliate a fellow NRI student just because he is conceited about his grades but does not know Hindi! And all this at the cost of women and girls dotted the entire film as if balaatkar was a frivolous exercise!
The very same Amir Khan uses the Mahavir Singh Phogat story to serve his dual purpose. Dangal turns out to be more about a father trying to experience vicarious triumph through a sport he desperately wished to follow but could not than the success of two girls who went on to excel in a male-dominated sport like wrestling at the Commonwealth level. Did he ever ask the girls whether they were interested in wrestling, never mind the breaking of the sex barrier. He did not care to find out what precisely would interest them. He allowed them to be the butt of jokes at school.
It was his passionate dream to see the two girls win, not theirs. Gita was also manipulated to humiliate her wrestling coach in Patiala in a television interview in his presence after a win. Was this ethical? Did this also form a part of a manipulation strategy her father had subjected her to for years together?
Let me give one example of a real life tragedy. Biswadip Bhattacharjee, (14), collapsed and died on the terrace of his house in a Calcutta suburb while practicing table tennis with his father on January 8, 2007. Biswadip played table tennis since the age of five and represented the state at various levels. But he failed to satisfy his father, Dipak Bhattacharjee. On the day he died, Biswadip came home after practice at 6.00 in the morning. After a quick breakfast, he was pushed into further practice with his sister Neha, till 10.30. Following this, he was forced to practice with his father. When he missed a return serve, his father threw a plastic object at him. But he continued to play. He finally fell unconscious at 12.30 and by the time they took him to Bangur Hospital, he was dead.
Tapan Chandra, who had coached Biswadip, placed the blame squarely on his father’s shoulders. “Dipak is my friend and I often asked him to control his temper. But he used to beat his son so much that Biswadip would faint. Once he had bashed up the boy with a chain and I had to take him to the hospital,” he informs. The post mortem report revealed a blood clot that could have been caused by an injury from a blunt object or from a rain of blows from the father.
Sports and academics bring out the worst in parental pressure creating needless stress for their children. The parents of a young girl would force the girl to train for two 6.00 am sessions and five after-school sessions every week and was forced to continue even when she broke an arm. She had to hold the plastered arm upright and away from the water when she swam.
Gita and Babita in this film were not only unwilling victims forced to surrender to their father’s dreams. They were also the victim of an extremely autocratic, dictatorial and pushy father who did not know the difference between force and motivation.
Where does one draw the line between pushing and motivating? Psychiatrists opine that parents who wished to achieve something in life but could not, seek to get vicarious fulfillment through the achievements of their children. “But what parents fail to realize is that their children too, may fail to fulfill their aspirations,” says Dr. Shiladitya Ray, chief psychiatrist at Belle Vue. The fathers of Biswadip is a living example of this perform-or-be-punished policy among pressurizing parents.
Laila Das, a Calcutta-based sports psychiatrist says, “the pressure his father put on him might have created fear in the 14-year-old’s mind, triggering a heart attack,” referring to Biswadip’s tragic and untimely death.
What is Amir Khan trying to prove? He has proved it already several times over – that he is the biggest manipulator in Indian cinema today who can smoothly straddle a social issue with a feminist slant, focus on an individual sporting event that saw an Indian girl score in the Olympics last year and using these to strike at the heart of all Indians which will automatically reach the box office coffers. He has both the power and the ability to twist the mass audience around the little finger of his right hand and we all get out of the theatre revelling in the joys and the triumphs of womanhood.
“Mhari Chhori Chhoron Se Kam Hain Ke?” goes the tag line on all posters of the film. Does this not automatically acknowledge that men are really ‘better’ than women because women are “no less than men?” Really?