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Dangal: Aamir’s life defining realistic portrayal of a wrestler

Bollywood films are increasingly mirroring the impact of method acting school when actors undergo unbelievable body transformation (besides adoption of mannerisms and lingo of characters portrayed) to enable them to go under the skin of characters being portrayed on screen, writes Sushil Kumar, a senior IAS officer, who is also a film analyst and a sports enthusiast.


In Hollywood, the best exponent of this craft has been the great Robert De Niro, who has physically and culturally transformed himself so many times that one has lost count; recall his famous films like Raging Bull, Cape Fear, Casino and Godfather II. Of course, there have been others like Mickey Rourke in Wrestler, Jake Gyllenhall in Southpaw Christian Bale in The Fighter, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, Matt Damon in Invictus in recent times.

Bollywood, after independence, has been dominated by star power though some actors have tried body transformation for their roles- Mithun Chakraborty tried in The Boxer, Abhishek in Guru, Ranveer Hooda has done that in Sarabjit, John Abraham in Shootout at Wadala; but in our Bollywood, it’s Aamir who has adopted body/cultural transformation route repeatedly, be it his first film Holi or later films like Raakh, Rangeela, Mangal Pandey the Rising, Dhoom 3.

His life defining realistic portrayal of a wrestler, with matching physicality, will remain forever etched in popular imagination for eternity. These are good signs for Bollywood as its stars are finally turning new leaf in increasingly incorporating method acting methods and breathing reality in reel life characters.

Since Sultan and Dangal share similar storylines (wrested from wrestling) , comparisons are inevitable. But, each is different as chalk is from cheese. First, the similarity: both are set in rural Haryana but Sultan due to component of multi- martial arts , had scenes/ shots of urban India, whereas in Dangal, most scenes are set/shot in rural India excepting when girls come to National Sports Academy etc;both heroes use scooters to indicate small town setting; fighting sequences in both are good but choreography in Dangal is a notch better as its accompanied by explanations. However, professionalism in script ,screenplay ,picturisation and performance of actors in Dangal indicates far superior sincerity and seriousness of intention and effort ( as seen in two year time frame while filming): Sultan has Salman, the superstar, bestowing an ordinary screen character characteristics like exaggerated mannerisms and mouthing clichéd one liners , whereas in Dangal equally famous superstar sinks so much under the skin of the character that it’s difficult to separate the two ; both films have women as wrestlers too but in Sultan the characterization is within the acceptable role definitions of woman in roles of a lover, a wife, marriage and children , whereas Dangal has life altering comments on societal need to bend gender roles for girls; Sultan has a feel of artificiality in characters’ dresses, mannerisms much like most films of Bollywood , whereas Dangal has a real feel of social realism ,much in mode of a social documentary – specially in showing of small town’s brick paved narrow streets, open drains with black flowing liquids, irregular and incomplete buildings brick exposed exteriors( mirroring ad-hoc additions ), terrace designs, low key lighting giving sepia toned interiors ( unlike in Sultan) hinting at omnipresent low voltages in rural hinterland of that era; Sultan doesn’t directly grapple with gender bending empowerment as traditional role taking and making is not questioned whereas in Dangal challenging traditional stereotypes/roles is the main story itself Sultan is out and out a star studded entertainment film with no pretension to pass on a social message or a long recall value after one leaves the theatres ; in contrast , Dangal combines the content of social comment with entertainment and will be long remembered – for breaking fresh ground for many things

The rural setting , use of rural dialect ( successfully used in films like Ganga Jamuna, Teesri Kasam, Lagaan and partially by Sultan) on one side , and symbolism of ‘mitti’ and ever ubiquitous pan Indian rural sport of wrestling , immediately fosters an emotional connect with rural/semi urban movie goers; this will inevitably enhance creditable commercial conquest at Bharat (rural) and India (metro) levels – a rarity these days as Box Office returns are governed by differential and mutually exclusive urban and rural market(i.e. multiple screen cineplexes and single screen respectively).

Dangal, both metaphorically and thematically, with gender bender orientation, indeed, does depict an uneven ‘Dangal’ with a super heavyweight and powerful patriarchal /rural social system /values /stereotypes governing girl child’s roles. And rather than mouthing the prescriptive message at the end, the film does it beautifully when a young friend of the girls, in full bridal regalia, rues and ruminates about her unfolding predictable patterned life and missed opportunities (indeed a touching scene), in great contrast to what the protagonists’ father was planning for them; this is a turning point that changes course of the film and life of protagonists, of course.

Though women’s literacy rates in Haryana are still woefully poor, the film takes girl’s education as given (both girls attending co-educational school); instead, interestingly, it in fact enhances the pitch beyond mere education by arguing for achievement of name and fame for females through sports- which is more empowering and emancipating for girls and puts them on equal footing with males than mere jobs through education. No wonder, Haryana has equally embraced Sakshi Malik and placed her on same pedestal as Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Vijender Singh after their Olympics victories.

Though espousing women’s empowerment, the film’s core content is still contextualized in a dominant patriarch’s unilateral ( wife’s muted concerns easily overridden) and undemocratic decision in determining daughters’ career choices-though realistic as the husband diktat is still runs supreme in most rural hinterland of India. One must admiringly acknowledge that Mahavir’s decision was creditworthy and courageous in cultural context of India’s countryside, where girl’s education has only picked up in last three decades and where the Gross Enrolment Ratio for girls is still way below the national average for boys- forget the international standards.

And in keeping with dominant social value of ‘parivaars’ preferring male progenies, the story line shifts significantly with Mahavir pining for birth of ‘putr’ (son), archetypically like every rural patriarch ,albeit with a slight difference in basic motivation ; and on not being bestowed with male progeny , he unhappily abandons his wish and folds up his dreams reconciling with fate after birth of four daughters. (depicted in symbolically wrapping all wrestling artifacts and memorabilia in that ubiquitous iron trunk of traditional Indian rural household surviving through generations in reality and in films-also seen in PK’s last scene).

Film also depicts the ubiquitous urge of every parent to realize one’s unrealised dreams through children irrespective of place or culture ; stopped in the tracks in youth to realize his ‘golden’ dream by existential issues of livelihood, Mahavir also seeks to realize his unfulfilled dreams through his children(daughters) . This is bound to strike a sentimental chord owing to commonality of experience of children/parental psychological pressures playing out across all cultures and communities.

(The second part of a four-part series)

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