There is only so much you can do with a movie that revolves around sports. The story is always standard - an underdog who has much to prove, a superior opponent who will stop at nothing to win, a down-in-the-dumps coach, loads of emotional manipulation and a heartstopping finale in which the underdog wins against all odds. You can either go spectacularly right (Chak De India
) or go spectacularly wrong (several movies like Dhanadhan Goal
The leading man of Dangal, Aamir Khan, has done it before, too. He has starred in Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar
- both of which followed the template to the T and were major hits. This time, though, the odds were much bigger. Aamir himself raised those odds - he is no longer the young man from JJWS or the emerging superstar of the Lagaan time. He is, instead, India's thinking actor who makes only blockbusters, and hence the expectations from Dangal were much higher.
In the face of such expectations, Khan delivers. And this time, he does it standing on the sidelines. For Dangal is more about Geeta and Babita Phogat, and while it makes detours to accommodate the "bawla" baap played by Khan, its focus is clearly on the triumphs of the sisters. Dangal is manipulative cinema at its best, touching on each nerve that it is meant to - it raises its voice against sexism, is fiercely feministic, brings out the patriotic nerve in everyone sitting in the stadium theatre, and plays on the girl factor more than once to leave everyone moist-eyed.
Dangal begins with the journey of Mahavir Singh Phogat and his failure to win a gold medal in an international wrestling event for India. He then dreams of having a boy who will fulfill his dream, but his wife (Sakshi Tanwar) delivers only four daughters in a row. Phogat gives up his dream until one day it strikes him that a gold is a gold - whether it is won by a girl or a boy.
And thus begins a nightmare for his elder daughters Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar). The girls are forced to wake up at 5 each morning, learn wrestling, wear shorts, eat chicken and, heartbreakingly, cut their hair short. How they grow up into fine young wrestlers (Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra) and finally realise their father's dream forms the rest of Dangal.
Khan is fantastic in his portrayal of the man who decides he can be only one thing at a time - either the coach or the father. Everything about him - from the way he raises his left hand with a close fist to denote victory and the way he breaks into a run at the end - is authentic, and makes you forget that you are watching the biggest money-spinner in Bollywood.
Sakshi Tanwar supports him admirably, but it is the girls - all four of them - who are the clear winners. This writer hasn't seen too many finer performances, and it is not just about their acting. The girls have clearly learnt the sport, and the authenticity that comes through in the wrestling matches is to be seen to be believed. They elevate the movie to a different level altogether. Aparshakti Khurana and a younger actor who plays the role of a cousin to the girls are brilliant, too.
The cinematography by Sethu Sriram is wonderful, and captures the earthy tones of Haryana and the wrestling arenas with equal élan. The music supports the narrative beautifully. The only grouse you could have against such a film is that it felt the need to demonise a national coach - if only they'd resisted that temptation, Dangal would have been near perfect. Director Nitesh Tiwari does the best thing by letting the sport dominate his story-telling, and delivers a certified blockbuster.
Go watch Dangal. In a year in which Indian sportswomen lifted the entire country's spirits with their performances, Dangal is the perfect icing on the cake. You will walk out with a smile on your face, and what better way than that to end the year?