Undoubtedly, Bollywood movie ‘Dangal’ has been one of the hottest movies among Malaysian moviegoers since it hit the screens at the end of 2016.

This should come as no surprise. The movie stars Indian award-winning actor Aamir Khan and features a compelling and uncommon plot about professional wrestling.

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Is ‘Dangal’ girl power or a new form of oppression?

by Entertainment, people, society

Based on a true story, the biographical sports drama follows the journey of a former national wrestling champion Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Khan) as he trains his two daughters to become gold and silver medalists at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

The film has garnered much praise for promoting gender equality, especially in patriarchal India where it is still illegal to determine the sex of a child before birth due to widespread female infanticide.

But whether or not it truly challenges patriarchy is a matter for debate.

The film opens with Mahavir expressing desire for a son, so he could train the boy to become a world class wrestler to fulfill Mahavir’s dream of winning a gold medal for India at a world championship. The hopes of Mahavir, who had to give up wrestling to make a living, dies as his wife delivers his fourth daughter.

That is until his eldest daughters Geeta and Babita, enraged after being teased by the village boys, decided to wallop the boys. It was a lightbulb moment for Mahavir – why crave for a son when his daughters can be trained just the same to achieve gold for India?

Girls to men

To achieve his dream, he disregarded objections by his wife and the gossip among his neighbourhood. Geeta and Babita were forced to train at 5am daily, eventually abandoning their traditional salwar kameez and long plaited hair for T-shirts, shorts and cropped hairdo so as to not distract from wrestling.

The scenes of the girls training directly confront gender stereotypes in rural India.

For example, when Mahavir’s wife frets over how her husband is ruining the girls’ chances of attracting a suitor, he tells her that when the girls are champions, it is they who will pick their partners and not the other way around.

When she tells him it is unheard of for girls to be wrestling, he asks: “So you think our girls are not as good as boys?”

Most obvious was the juxtaposition between the Phogat girls and their friend, a teen bride.

Upset that his daughters missed practice for something as frivolous as a wedding party, Mahavir stormed the party and struck Geeta across the face.

Crying to their friend, Geeta and Babita lament that their father is no father at all, forcing them to give up things that matter to them – their free time, their childhood, their long hair – to wrestle against boys in the mud.

But in the pivotal scene, their friend the teen bride tells them they are wrong. Unlike Mahavir, she said, her parents see her as nothing but a burden to be passed on to a groom for a price. Mahavir, she said, was giving his daughters a life.

Two dads little different

Even so, one cannot help but note that both the teen bride’s father and Mahavir are holding on to the same rope of patriarchy.

Mahavir, who had the final say on everything, forced his daughters to bend to his will of winning a gold medal for the country. This was not much different from forcing his daughter to get married. The only difference is that Mahavir’s motive was much more acceptable in the perspective of modern society.

The scene with the teen bride marked a change in the Phogat girls who buy into their father’s dream, catapulting the film many years forward to when a young adult Geeta becomes national champion.

Now a national athlete, Geeta has to leave her father’s tutelage to train at a national sports institution far from home.

Here, Mahavir’s power as “father” is challenged by a greater power – the “state” – represented by the sports institution and the national coach, who immediately undermines Mahavir’s techniques in front of his daughter.

The move to the national sports institution also allowed Geeta to expand her wings beyond sports. If before she was tightly regimented, in this bright new world she starts growing her hair, painting her fingernails, goes shopping and watches movies with her friends.

Slowly, she decides to abandon the so-called “weak skills” that she learned from Mahavir and adapted to what was offered by her coach.

And this ultimately turns to a confrontation between Geeta and Mahavir. In a visit to her hometown, Geeta defeats the now middle-aged Mahavir in a wrestling match.

The treatment of Geeta henceforth is that of a “rebel”, and her rebellion against the patriarchal force of her father was duly punished.

In back to back scenes, Geeta is unable to win a single international match while her sister Babita, who upheld her father, becomes national champion as reward for her “obedience”.

It is only after Geeta makes amends with her father and returns to her role as “obedient daughter” that she breaks her losing spell.

A poignant scene between Mahavir and Geeta, where he advises her to be a role model for all girls in India, may again persuade the audience of the feminist streak in the film. But alas, the denouement brings us back to the question of overarching patriarchy.

As much as the film strongly challenges stereotypes and gender roles in Indian society, ultimately, Dangal is a story of how Mahavir won his gold medal for India through his daughter. In this aspect, Geeta and Babita as women, became tools for their father, a man, to achieve his glory.

After Geeta wins the gold medal in a gut wrenching, nail-biting match (the cinematography and acting are stellar, one is literally sitting at the edge of one’s seat), she scans the stadium to find her father.

In the pinnacle scene, she shows her father the medal, and he for the first time in her life, says: “Syabas.”

If you were watching this, what did you see? Did you see a father who secured a bright future for his daughter, or did you see a daughter who fulfilled her father’s long-awaited dream?

Was Dangal really promoting gender equality and challenging the traditional values of the Indian society, or did it merely show a new form of gender oppression under the guise of national glory?