To be critical of Dangal is fine, to be dismissive is not

Balu Sunil
movie Dangal
provoked many reactions. This article is an attempt to pen down some
observations after watching the movie and reading several reviews around it.
While there are some reviews which do analyse the movie form a positive angle,
numerous reviews and social media posts have being extremely critical of the movie [1]
thoroughly dismissing the progressive potential of Dangal. While it is
important that Dangal like any other movie has to be analysed critically, it is
pointless to have an extremely condescending take on the movie and claim that
it is yet another movie whose message reifies the existing patriarchal
structures and no more.

One major line
of criticism pointed at Dangal is that despite the achievements of female
protagonists, they do not succeed in transcending the patriarchal structure
which is in place. They have not yet been liberated from its shackles and never
really come out from the shadows of the patriarch who is their father. While
this reading is not completely off the mark, is it not important to consider
the socio-political context of the movie and its protagonists while making
these remarks? Should it be the case that we, the liberated individuals who
live in urban India
and mostly from upper middle class backgrounds recognise movies only when if it
satisfies our level of socio-political consciousness?  Nowhere in the movie do the female
protagonists smash or even question the structure of patriarchy and even in the
climax scenes they have not escaped from it despite their laudable
achievements. But what the movie does portray is some definitive strides
against the patriarchal structure. These strides are extremely important for
they eventually culminate in enabling us to question the roots of patriarchy.
To not recognise these aspects and to be merely dismissive of it because the
female protagonists in the movie continue to be not liberated relative to those
in urban metropolitan areas is to have a very simplistic understanding of the
movie. In the male chauvinist sea of rural Haryana, where female foeticides and
Khaps are the   rule of the day, the female
protagonists of the movie , although forced by their father are eventually
questioning  some norms which are
ingrained in the societal psyche for centuries. While we should be critical of the numerous
angles of oppression which are unquestioned by the movie, it is also important
to recognise this angle.
criticism is the denial of agency for the female characters. The point being
that like any other quintessential male patriarch, Mahavir Singh Phogat imposes
his whims on his children and therefore despite their laudable achievements,
these women like those present in any other patriarchal household did not get
to choose the lives they led. But while making this point, the totality of the
events have to be also given due importance. This very patriarchal act of Phogat
opens up a series of events and realisations which make even him question the
logic of male domination in the society reflected in many of the dialogues and
acts of the character. In one instance, when his wife who is extremely
perturbed by the changes happening in the bodies of her daughters which is in
complete taboo of conventional gender norms of rural Haryana asks him how they
will find suitable boys for marriage; he remarkably replies that  his daughters will seek boys rather than the
other way around. In one of the reviews of the movie, the author points that
through this dialogue, Phogat aims at nothing but reversal of gender of roles
and existence status-quo.  The author
probably expects a rural Haryanvi patriarch to make a sanitised politically
correct statement when questioning age old beliefs while replying to such
queries. This was one of the most ludicrous understandings of this reply of
Phogat whose only intention through these remarks to his wife is that his
children will not be bowed down by traditional gender roles. The point being
that these are important remarks which transgress deep rooted patriarchal
structures without even the protagonist realising it. In the course of the
movie, we witness further transformation of Phogat when he tells his daughter Geetha
before the Common wealth games finals that she is not merely contesting for her
or her own country, but for many of those women who are denied opportunities
because of their sex. The point being that his dictatorial imposition over his
daughters to choose wrestling alone cannot be the vantage point in analysing
Phogat and his daughters. 
The characters in the movie, especially that of
Phogat’s undergo an evolution, subtly questioning the at least some aspects of
patriarchy embedded in his consciousness. Moreover, in the absence of a strong
movement questioning patriarchal hegemony, this for all purposes is probably
the path traversed by rural patriarchs like Phogat in realising the impact of
patriarchy which they have internalised. To smirk at it is to smirk at the
of this is to say that Dangal is devoid of criticisms. Many reviews have
touched upon it and have made relevant observations. Apart from these
criticisms, I felt that several dimensions of nationalism as portrayed in
Dangal were negative in nature. This does not mean that Dangal should not have
touched upon patriotic sentiments; but there was no need to portray the
Australian opponents in a negative manner in order to instil patriotic
sentiments among the audience. It was unnecessary and would not have affected
even the commercial aspects of the movie.
the end, contexts are important. It is pointless to expect characters rooted in
one of the most patriarchal settings to communicate and understand patriarchy
in the same way as the enlightened educated souls of urban settings. The fight
against patriarchy is very much context specific. The burning problems that we
face in urban upper middle class locations are significantly different from the
questions in rural hinterland where the denial of education and right to choose
a partner of one’s own accord still remain as important problems faced by
women. The point being that each context produces its own struggles and there
is no point in any sort of gradation.
Most importantly, when we move from reel life to real life, these
initiatives of Phogat family has led to the formation of institutions where the
taboos associated with female wrestling have being questioned significantly. In
the wrestling arena of their village, many girls practise to be budding champions
providing them an alternative from being completely enslaved by patriarchy. Are
not these remarkable achievements? Is it correct to merely look down on these
developments only because of the important role played by the patriarch in
these developments?
many reviews and social media posts which are critical of Dangal is reflective
of a very outright condescending approach that we who have being privileged
enough to study in the elite Universities have
towards  those commercial movies
which attempt to address social issues within their limitations. Like PK, which
questioned the very logic of religion in the time of ascendant Hindu
nationalism, Dangal which reflects upon
the questions of gender oppression faced by rural women in Haryana within the
confined boundaries of the Hindi commercial cinema is an important movie. We
should problematise it, but should not out rightly reject it. Otherwise our
reactions may seem like nothing but self-righteous snobbery of some individuals
living in their own comfortable cubicles.


1. This
The Author is doing PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi