& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, December 26, 2016

Dangal: A father's quiet desperation

My family's life is neatly divided into two segments – when we were in India (before Canada) and when we are in Canada (after India). We measure everything that occurs in our lives by this basic parameter, especially everything that happens in India in popular culture – cinema, music, television (especially news), books, and the worldwide web.
We are uncritical fans of popular Hindi cinema and we track every little thing that happens in the Bombay-based film industry. It is our considered opinion (and we don't care that nobody is asking) that while all the three Khans continue to be at the top of their game in 2016 just as they were in 2008.
However, there is a perceptible change in the popularity levels of Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan. The latter has become undisputedly a bigger star than the former in the last eight-and-a-half years.

Significantly, there is apparently no change whatsoever in Aamir Khan’s star appeal. Ghajni (2008), which was the first Aamir Khan film we saw in Toronto, had the same enthusiastic response as Dangal (2016) is getting at present.

On Saturday night (Christmas Eve) we went to see Dangal at the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex - the only multiplex that regularly screens Hindi movies. The show was houseful, we had booked in advance. This - the fact that the show was houseful - is unusual because not too many Hindi movies attract a large audience in Toronto.

Most Indo-Canadians live in the extended suburban towns of the Greater Toronto Area – Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, etc. It wouldn’t be unusual (although not commonplace) for the hordes of fans to flock the multiplexes in these smaller towns.

But in Toronto? That’s hearteningly unusual.

A minor digression: At the cost of repeating myself, let me explain the reason why Hindi movies don't do too well in Canada. Generally, most of us here prefer to see Hindi movies at home on pirated DVDs because it’s cheap ($1), convenient (you get it at grocery stores) and I'm sure all of you will agree that most movies aren’t worth spending a hundred dollars (average cost of a family outing to see a movie).
Most of us go to the cinema hall only to see movies of the three Khans.

Of course, everyone in Brampton goes to see all Akshay Kumar movies in cinema halls, because Akshay Kumar is bigger than the Khans in Brampton.
In 2016, Akshay Kumar rewarded all Bramptonians (and those who don’t live in Brampton but like me, would love to) with two critically-acclaimed films – Airlift and Rustom, and one supremely awful but popular film – Houseful 3.
Will he get a Filmfare for best actor? He should but won’t because Aamir Khan will get it.

For our (Canada-India) bilateral ties to skyrocket, the Narendra Modi government is bungling its way from one crisis to another should appoint Akshay Kumar as India’s Ambassador (High Commissioner) to Canada.
But enough about Akshay Kumar, let’s now get back to Dangal.

I’d have thought that the first generation immigrants such as Mahrukh and I would comprise a majority of the audience at the Cineplex in downtown Toronto because that is the kind of audience that comes to see Hindi movie in cinema halls.

However, for Dangal there were a good number of second and third generation Indo-Canadians, and a substantial number of students from India enrolled in Canadian universities.

All making for a rather raucous audience that was totally involved in the film; clapping, cheering, grunting, sighing and exhaling as the story unfolded.

Wisely, Cineplex had permitted audiences to get in half-an-hour before the show time, and the sprawling hall for screen 13 had filled up in no time. Once again, the sight of so many northeastern Indians surprised me.

A lot of nachos were being consumed, and a lot of Coke was being drunk. The smell of food was at once overpowering and nauseating.

In addition, there was almost a muted roar inside the hall; this is because wherever there are Indians, there is immense and unceasing chattering. As the movie began, there were a few whistles and a lot of clapping when Aamir Khan came on the screen.

I will not attempt to review the film because I’m not a reviewer, and writing a review must involve understanding the craft of filmmaking, which I don’t.

But as someone who has had a lifetime of experience watching all kinds of movies, and as someone who is fiercely proud of popular Hindi cinema, I must admit that I haven’t seen anything like Dangal before.

Yes, we are now familiar with sports-themed films, a relatively new genre in Hindi cinema, and Shimit Amin’s Chak De India (where Rob Miller directed all the sports action) is the best the genre has offered so far. Naresh Tiwari’s Dangal is a welcome addition to this genre.

However, Dangal is a different kind of film, not easy to slot in a specific genre.
It is about a father’s obsession to get a gold medal in wrestling for India. When his repeated efforts to produce a male child are thwarted – and this situation, which in real life must have been fraught with tragic tension for the entire family, and especially his wife, is narrated deftly and lightly – the father Mahavir Singh Phogat decides that he’ll turn his daughters Geeta and Babita into wrestlers.
What follows is the story of a father’s unceasing efforts to turn his daughters into dedicated sportswomen, who reluctantly at first and enthusiastically later share his dream.

Four actors enact the roles of the two daughters, and while the two older actors have got some (deserving) attention, having been featured on the popular Koffee with Karan TV chat show with Aamir Khan, the younger actors who play the younger versions of the girls are remarkable, too.

Aamir Khan completely lives the role and transforms himself into Phogat, the wrestler father he portrays. With a massive midriff, jowly cheeks, and eyebrows permanently knitted in determination, he is unrecognisable. His movements are a combination of an elephant’s languorous gait, and a lion’s lithesome lumber. There is no trace of a megastar anywhere, except in the few scenes where he is shown as a young wrestler.

Shaksi Tanwar is fabulous in a role that doesn’t offer much by way of histrionics; she succeeds in not being overawed by Aamir Khan in all the scenes they share.

The buildup to the climax is slow and the sequences of the wrestling matches at the 2010 Commonwealth Games are the ones that evoke the maximum excitement.

Women wrestlers are shown as they should be – as sportswomen. The physicality of their bodies is not camouflaged or objectified. The close-crop shots of the players gripping each other make the wrestling bouts seem palpably real.

Another noteworthy aspect of the movie is the realistic depiction of the grimy poverty of the Phogat household in rural Haryana. There is no attempt to airbrush or photoshop the insides of the home of a poor former wrestler.

The home conveys a feeling of quiet desperation, and it helps us comprehend Phogat’s overt determination to overcome his circumstances by badgering his daughters to win medals.

The medals would perhaps compensate for the comprehensive failure that his life has become after he had won the national championship when he was young.

A few concluding comparisons: Is Dangal better than Sultan? Of course, it is. Should they be compared? No, because Dangal is more like Chak De India than Sultan, in the sense that both are stories about coaches. Is Aamir Khan better than Salman Khan? Yes. He is even better than Shahrukh Khan in Chak De India.

And finally, isn’t it wonderful that after all the 2010 Commonwealth Games will not only be remembered for the massive corruption of Suresh Kalmadi, but also for Geeta Phogat’s impressive gold medal?
Go watch the movie in case you haven’t already.

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