Thursday , October 19 2017


FILM-O- TEXT AND CONTEXT: Cine-socio-psychologically speaking, since quite a while, Nitesh Tiwari’s film, namely, Dangal (wrestling contest) is straight from that famed stable called social realism cinema made famous by the likes of Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thief) and others, writes Sushil Kumar, a senior IAS officer, who is also a film analyst and a sports enthusiast.

This style of film making was driven with avowed aim of questioning and challenging current socio -cultural stereotypes, leading to change in mind-set and society. In India, Bimal Roy, V. Shantaram, Guru Dutt, Shyam Benegal and Guru Dutt have been its great exponents and experimenters. In keeping with that school of thought, Dangal is a stinging comment, albeit sweetened slightly, on gnawing gender gaps going on for generations in India in general and in rural hinterland in particular.

The film depicts the drama with twists and turns, existential trials and tribulations, of a struggling family with limited means in small rural habitation of Haryana. In other words, Dangal uses the format of social documentary style of film making and storytelling, couching critical comments, indirectly and in non prescriptive polemics, on socio -cultural mores defining gender roles, role taking and making, of girls in general and sports in particular – in a patriarchal family set in fading feudalism in Haryana. It also comments adversely on sorry state of India’s sports institutional structures and operations against avowed lofty goals listed in national and State sports policies.

Dangal is not only a gripping film about wrestling grips and trips on the mat; it tells a compelling story of an individual’s determination and his decision to become a game changer in altering attitudes and in contesting gender roles specially in rural rearing of girl child – through psychological support and actual physical contests or Dangal. The film’s appeal lies in its main protagonist namely Mahavir Phogat’s ( virtuoso performance by Aamir ) individual decision to flow against the social group dynamics and dominant social current , in an ascribed society like India ; in achievement oriented western society- or even in some metros of India- governed by strong individualism , this narration wouldn’t have been that fresh .

This depiction of strong individualism sends a strong motivational message amongst masses, when seen in rural Haryana’s social setting where group norms and dynamics are dictated by diktats of caste Panchayats (read khap).

The film is commendably contextual and timely: it’ setting in Haryana (by implication even Punjab before division both were one) is symptomatic of notorious nexus with obnoxious and abominable practices of female infanticide earlier (through feeding opium or salt to newborn girls)/foeticide facilitated by sex determination tests later which skewed the sex ratios for decades (position beginning to change with 2011 Census).

This abhorrent attitude has largely been an outcome of still remnant feudal/patriarchic system with well defined segregated sex roles. The related psycho-socio-cultural practices basically emanated from desire to cut claims and costs on families/clans on issues related to matrimony and land ownership. Feudal land ownership practices relegated women to inferior status and they were treated as chattels and spoils of conquests and were governed by strict codes of honour, segregation and purdah (remember mass suicides by women during Jauhar and partition). And where the threats of war didn’t exist, the feudalism fostered undesirable matrimonial practices, even creating a matriarchic system, as seen in a southern State before independence. Most of the feudalism fostered gender discrimination relating to marriage/ succession/inheritance rights was addressed through enactment of Hindu Marriage Act (1955) and Succession Act (1956) at least in legal sense.

In Haryana and Punjab, the mind set of perpetuation of property rights through males permitted near persecution of girls without much societal guilt till marriageable girls scarcity started becoming a social problem and led to numerous measures including outlawing of sex determination tests (this has helped in reduction of female feticide but the practice hasn’t disappeared). Mercifully, Census has confirmed improving sex ratios in both Haryana and Punjab.

One couldn’t comprehend why female feticide was perpetrated when under Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) customary laws, the property anyway was divided amongst males only and women only had a right of maintenance before and after marriage and when rural villages anyway considered all girls born as daughters and sisters excepting those brought in matrimony from outside.

Bollywood has long history of making full length feature films on wrestling and Dara Singh enjoyed a cult following for decades in this genre. It’s indeed surprising as to why Bollywood filmmaking factory continues to ignore real life conquests of legendary Gama Pehelwan who was undefeated wrestler king of the whole world including the white man’s world.

British colonial establishment couldn’t have allowed the film adaptation of invincible Gama Pehelwan. One hears that Salman Khan and John Abraham had earlier announced their intentions to make films on Gama but their interest has remained – only intention. My guess is that Gama’s emigration to Pakistan may be posing a problem as that postscript can’t be avoided in the picture.

Hollywood has made some interesting films on all forms of wrestling and of that genre, important films include Wrestler, Foxcatcher ,Takedowns and Falls, Man on the Moon, The Hammer , Reversal ( similar in theme as depicts struggles of son to meet father’s expectations ) etc. Hollywood successful films on wrestling also adhere to documentary format of storytelling.

Now a word about portrayal of gender discrimination in parallel cinema: in 2013, a serious film namely Qissa, on similar theme was made wherein Irrfan and the film perfectly portrayed the pathos of Punjab’s obsession with having male progenies. The film was hardly seen by people largely because the message was conveyed too seriously. In contrast, Dangal conveys the same message about gender empowerment and discrimination but does that couched in an interesting story and drama and would reach much greater audience with some hope of changing mindset and men.

(The first part of a four-part series)

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