More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Wrestling has, of course, been formally recognised by the U.N. as the world’s most exciting sport, with athletes, nay, artists like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Steve Austin, Necro Butcher, Kendo Nagasaki, “Above Average” Mike Sanders, Blaster McMassive and Flex Rumblecrunch delivering joy to millions. Sadly Dangal, a phenomenally successful Indian film from last year focuses not on the excellent world of Professional Wrestling, but on Amateur Wrestling, which is obviously inferior. It’s in the name, people. It might be Sport, but can it guarantee Entertainment?

Well, such frivolity aside, Dangal is based, very loosely indeed, on the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Aamir Khan), and daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari. Mahavir was a national wrestling champion, by due to what he sees as chronic underinvestment from the authorities, was never able to achieve his dream of an international level gold medal. While still involved with training local youths, he gives up on his dream in favour of a job to support his family, with the hopes of training a son to follow in his footsteps.

However, no such son is forthcoming, he and his wife having four daughters, rather churlishly leaving Mahavir dispirited. The kids grow up, as kids tend to do, but it appears that Geeta (played by Zaira Wasim as a youngster, and Fatima Sana Shaikh later on) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar and Sanya Malhotra) have inherited some of Mahavir’s fighting spirit after a schoolyard tussle. Mahavir takes this as a sign that they must be trained in the arts of wrestling, and rekindles his dreams.

It may seem cruel to put the youngsters through this intense training regime, and certainly the kids do not take well to it, but after attending an arranged marriage where the young teen bride to be laments the state of female agency in their culture, albeit in less SJW terms, the kids resolve to take this seriously both out of respect to their father and hope that it could offer a better life, and perhaps a way out of their small town.

Cue the training montages and musical numbers, as the two get better, stronger, faster and start entering competitions and winning against boys, before going on to compete at regional and national level, Geeta first, being the elder, followed not so far behind by Babita.

Geeta is tapped for international competition and is taken off to the national training camps, leaving her father’s self-built training dojo for the comfort of the dorms, and the temptation of, well, anything that’s not wrestling, the iron discipline her father instilled slipping and her new trainer, Wrongy McWrongface, wanting her to learn a very different style of wrestling that leads to a losing streak. This brings forth some conflict between Geeta and Babita, who stick up for her father’s teachings, and after some soul searching Geeta and her father reconcile and work together to go for gold.

Now, I’ve not a great deal of Indian cinema, next to nothing in fact, which is on the list of things to remedy. Of course, there’s a great deal of all kinds of cinema I’ve not seen, but mostly that’s lack of time or availability – there’s no intentionality behind it. Shamefully, there kind of is with Indian cinema, as I was afraid the Bollywood way of storytelling and the differences in culture would be to great a gap for me to give the films a fair shake.

There’s some of that showing in Dangal, I have to say. The place of women in Indian culture is inherently pretty shocking from a hardly perfect, but better than this Western perspective, and there’s a few lines in here that were brushed past in such a fashion that I assume are no at all controversial, despite them being about sexually objectifying a, what, thirteen year old, which certainly initiated a jaw/floor interface scenario.

The other problems, relatively minor, I must add, are the usual “based on a true story” qualms, which is basically the entire second half of the film, from the introduction of the moustache-twirlingly evil national coach about which I’d be royally peeved were I him, all of the conflict of the second half, and it’s frankly stupid conclusion being a complete fabrication. But, truth be damned, it makes for a fun story.

And that’s the real takeaway from Danga, it’s a really well put together, enjoyable story, with colourful characters, that’s going for more melodramatic, colourful, larger than life take on the events rather than gritty realism, and is all the more fun a watch for it.

Oh, and my other possible source of cultural confusion, the soundtrack, was a complete non-issue, and the exceptionally catchy theme in its variants is a thing of great greatness indeed. It is somewhat different from a Western perspective, I suppose, it’s used a bit like how orchestral scores would be used here to inform on the character’s feelings, except here it’s got lyrics that spell it out explicitly. Imagine if the score for Jaws was just someone shouting “Mammy! Daddy! Bitey Fish!” over and over.

I really enjoyed Dangal, and I think you will too. Give it a look.