Dangal – gently grappling with contradictions and double-binds


Last week, I watched ‘Dangal’ – a really well made film based on an evocative narrative stringing the lives of Mahender Singh Phogat, his wife Daya Shobha Kaur, and his two daughters – Geeta and Babita in the arena of wrestling. It is an original take on sporting sagas, leveraging the traditional ‘akhara’ (wrestling ring) in rural Haryana – as the container of sporting action, and tells an entertaining tale of real-life champions. Dangal has notched up excellent ratings from audiences and critics alike.



This is a film that tugs at your heartstrings on several fronts – an intense first half leaves you laughing and crying at the same time, as Phogat relentlessly trains and then unleashes his daughters onto the traditionally patriarchal ecology of wrestling in Haryana and Punjab, a land that has historically silenced and banished women into roles of being a mother, wife managing household chores etc. Phogat, played brilliantly by Amir Khan, is complex – there are strains of ‘madness’ that lurk beneath his passion and his dedication to the sport, and his obsession to push his two daughters beyond limits into becoming champions.

The second half of the movie is far from being perfect, and in its imperfection – it poignantly captures the ups and downs of the protagonists as they struggle in their respective life journeys, finally culminating into a climax of excitement and euphoria as Geeta wins her first gold medal in her journey to become a world class champion – a dream that Phogat himself had to let go of in his youth, as he got into the pragmatics of living.

Nitesh Tiwari, who writes the story, and directs the film, is as gifted as Raju Hirani, and tells a story that embeds itself into themes and quests that are socially relevant, and yet imbues the story with humor, satire, and intensity. Dangal is a film that you would enjoy as opposed to a large majority of Bollywood cinema that is entrenched in mediocrity and cliches. It lingers …

However this blog is not a spoiler and I recommend that you have a look. However it raised many questions that I have to come to terms with …


Double Bind 1

As a Parent – Do I compensate for my failed dreams? Do I make them traverse paths that I know too well?

As I look at my son and my daughter growing up, there are several times when I ask myself – should I push and persevere with them towards an education, or professions or a lifestyle that I value and cherish or should I let go of my personal aspirations and allow them space to discover their own paths. The answers are not so simple as much of my hopes, anxieties, expectations, and compensations lie in the unconscious …

For example, in my life journey, I have navigated through times of paucity and deprivation, strengthening myself with experiences that left me more determined and focused. There are times, I want to inflict the same conditions and environ, with a hope that they learn the same lessons and emerge with similar values etc.

There are children that I see around me, who are striving to meet their parents’ dreams without asking themselves whether the same dreams are significant or valuable. There are parents that live off their daughters’ and sons’ successes almost imprisoning the latter and not allowing for other meaningful experiences.


Dangal raises this question quite in your face.

Phogat is unabashedly on a trip – he disowns his own failure to win the country a medal by some referral to pragmatics of survival, and then sets forth into a compensation narrative – of experiencing a sense of self worth through his daughters.

The film takes him to a threshold where he has to choose between the roles of being a Guru (teacher) or a Father – and chooses the former, thereby relinquishing any relatedness with his daughters through the role of a father. As a Guru, he seeks complete surrender and plays the role of a narcissistic anti-hero to the hilt – there is no negotiability and no dialogue.

Phogat does not own up the dependency and oppression, he creates within his daughters, and even when Babita comes back with her own understanding of wrestling and her own nascent ideology – there is an intense father-daughter bout which is not just about wrestling skills but about the demeaned Guru and the prodigal daughter…

I think the film offers a difficult set of question for every parent –

  1. Do I take charge of my child’s life and why?
  2. When do I let go?
  3. How do I own up the violence that gets unleashed in this process?


Double Bind 2

To break the stranglehold of patriarchy, is there any other way beyond masculinity?

In many ways, the film is a contradiction. In the backdrop of feudal patriarchy, Phogat and his family fight the taunts, the restrictive practices, and the traditional values of the community by embracing skills and lifestyle of the masculine warrior.


Thus while the narrative would ostensibly like to celebrate the liberation of Geeta and Babita as women who break away from being objectified or restrained and make choices of their own, the essential contradiction is quite engaging. Geeta and Babita have to endorse masculinity to break the shackles of patriarchy. Any sign of femininity is a taboo or at best a distraction.

The movie does leave a question – is there any other way to counter the stranglehold of patriarchy? Beyond bra-burning and beyond wrestling – is there a way to celebrate and honour aspects of living that can overwhelm patriarchy?


Double Bind 3

Passion & Evocation beyond Self versus Method & Competency for Self

The narrative pitches Phogat (the traditional wrestler driven by passion and intensity, and for the nation with some nuances of nation-pride as well as jingoism) against a Coach who is shown to be more technical and method oriented – a splitting of sorts, which is further coloured by showing the latter as opportunistic, selfish, and manipulative.

This split that the movie seeks to talk about has become a double-bind of sorts – do I trust the Indian sportsperson’s passion and intensity or would method and discipline puncture this source – this fountain of energy?

Poignantly, the movie advocates that the winner – is the hero who wins for the community and not for self. In the Indian context, winning for self is seen as being selfish and narcissistic – and thus winning for self becomes a taboo.

This theme requires deeper exploration – for the movie almost states that a national level winner gets entrenched into living for self or survival when playing at an international level, and thus loses his or her mojo. It is almost that the self has been denied thus far and then it takes over and the only medicine is a dose of jingoism.

I think aspect of sports psychology for the Indian sportsperson requires more dialogue.

Do respond to these dilemmas and would love to hear your perspectives…


2 thoughts on “Dangal – gently grappling with contradictions and double-binds

  1. Very well written and resonate with the double binds that you have raised. In my view, the dynamic and static masculinity overpowered any forms of feminine that were displayed by the mother and the cousins characters, so much so, that I did not even remember the mother’s name at the end of the movie. The only place the cousin gets is in being a commentator without adding what’s happening to him and the mother has to be satisfied with being the supportive side liner.

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