By Rohit Vats, Hindustan Times
First they ignore you,
Then they laugh at you,
Then they fight you,
Then you win.
The 2010 Commonwealth Games are years away. Geeta Phogat (Zaira Wasim, Fatima Sana Shaikh) has just returned to Balali, her village in Haryana, after months of preparation at the National Sports Academy in Patiala. Something about her has changed. She isn’t exactly the same girl her father, former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan), trained. She is more confident, ambitious, better skilled and ready to take on the world by storm.
On the other hand, the rustic Mahavir wants to keep things simple. The tough patriarch wants his daughter to remain focused on the elusive international wrestling medals for India. He doesn’t like the way Geeta has been sucked into the new training regime. He thinks his methods are better than the coach’s at the academy.
This is the beginning of a war that’s surprisingly physical and abnormally mental. He challenges Geeta for a bout where he would test her newly acquired skills. As absurd as it sounds, the burly former wrestler, indeed fights his own daughter with all his might. He loses and with it, the years of conditioning of women and male domination are thrown out of the window.
This is the point where director Nitesh Tiwari had to decide the hero of the film: Will Mahavir curb his instincts and become an even more fierce coach, or will he let Geeta explore the horizon? He picks the first.
Chapter 1: Mission Impossible
It is the early 1980s and wrestlers are treated as local heroes. This is yet not the time for gym-toned bodies and common folks like to believe that wrestlers are physically superior to them.. On top of that, Mahavir Singh Phogat is a former national champion. Now a government servant, Phogat, who wears a gold ring and a silver-plated watch, has a volatile temper and wants a son to carry his legacy forward.
Such sentiments have already taken Haryana to the wrong side of the gender equality debate by the beginning of the ’90s. His apologetic wife (Sakshi Tanwar) shows how you start liking your oppressor because there is nowhere else to go. Not so directly, though. Tanwar’s comic timing tries to deflect the focus from her life to the little girls who are forced to fight the local chauvinists because their father has decided to transform them into world-class wrestlers.
Chapter 2: Pride And Prejudice
Mahavir is doing it because he has a dream to fulfil, but the girls have taken up wrestling because they are tired of cringe-worthy men and unrepentant boys. No wonder, they get their first boy-versus-girl fight because the organisers believed, “Agar apne pehalwano ko sher se bhi lada dega toh itne log nahi aayenge,” (You won’t sell these many tickets even if your boys fight a lion).
Geeta’s face, stride and attitude scream of retribution. She is there to break bones and the proverbial glass ceiling. And she doesn’t need to wear a classy gown for that. She wears lycra beneath her loose shirt and shorts that leaves only her palms and feet exposed. It’s in stark contrast to the boys’ outfits: nothing but a loin cloth. Still somebody in the crowd blows an obscene whistle. She must win the fight at any cost.
Chapter 3: Resurrection
People cheer the winners. They celebrate your success when you are on a high. Some don’t. And you meet them again when you return to your roots. In the rise and fall, what keeps a champion aloof from his surroundings is the survival instinct and the motive. Geeta and her national champion sister Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar, Sanya Malhotra) know they have got into wrestling with a mission. Win is the only way forward.
Chapter 4: Respect
You hear a roar before witnessing the frothy sea, a metaphor for Geeta and Babita’s quest to be at the crest of wrestling. Daler Mehndi belts out the Dangal title song right here and you feel a similar goosebumps moment that you felt in Rang De Basanti, Lagaan and Chak De India.
But nothing can be so perfect, so a villain has to be devised. It’s a fictional account, but a good story is never complete without a strong antagonist. If it was the society in the first half, the wrestling federation takes it over in the second. It gets a bit preachy. But it doesn’t matter: Mahavir and his girls have already won the bout.
This could be Aamir’s best performance till date. Yes, even better than Lagaan. A man making his daughters chase his dream. He cries, frowns, gets angry, looks old and tired, but is definitely one of us. When he shakes his head helplessly, you see a father in him. When he gets into a brawl, he is the brother you always depended on. When he wants to see you win, you know you have to perform. It’s not just his pride, it’s yours as well.