One of the major motivations for me to watch Dangal was its poster that featured girls with the ‘boy-cut’. Another one was the associated murmurs that claimed it to be another film that propagates ‘women empowerment’.
After watching the film, I felt that the understanding of ‘women empowerment’ in our society is still limited, empowerment is being ‘equal’ or ‘nearly equal’ to men.
In the film, when Mahavir Singh Phogat, a wrestler from a Bhiwani district, Haryana, after many attempts, lost the hope of having a son who could make his dream, of winning a gold medal for the nation, come true. The disappointed man became optimistic on the day when his daughters beaten up two young boys. This act motivated Mahavir to train his daughters to become wrestlers. It should be noted that he saw the scope of making his dream come true which made him imagine his daughters in a role of a wrestler. At this point, I perceived that Mahavir was not much different from any other parent of our society who puts the burden of their unfulfilled dreams on the shoulders of young children. Nonetheless, the idea of training his daughters for being wrestlers was a radical one, as it was different from the hitherto gender roles in that society, as described in the film, Mahavir faced criticism from the patriarchal society.
The process of becoming a wrestler was coercive and involved a forceful giving-up of ‘worldly pleasures’ that any child would have enjoyed at that age. The ‘boy-cut’, then, was the need of the situation because the long hair was attracting lice from the mud over which the girls were being trained by their father. However, this became a symbol of an ‘obedient daughter’ in the second half of the film where it was not needed. The song ‘Haanikarak Bapu’ aptly expresses the feeling of a typical child who is undergoing the hegemonic parental pressure of becoming someone of becoming someone without her own willingness.
At this point, the girls were persuaded by their female friend who was married-off at the young age of 14. She mentioned that the sisters were lucky to have a father who thinks something for them and considers them as daughters, as against the others (including her own father) who consider a girl child, ‘a burden’ who should be sent off to another house as soon as possible. At this point, I wondered if the film is trying to communicate that being treated as a ‘child without rights’ is good because it is still better than becoming some other female (or a burdensome child) in the community.
At this point, I was able to draw the similar analogy of a kid whose parents were doctors and the dream of the parents was to make their child ‘a better and far more successful doctor or scientist’. Later on, the kid was forced to follow a tight (but yet different) schedule of studies that has a rigorous training in mathematics and physics or biology at a relatively younger age. This child is also forced to give-up ‘worldly pleasures’ that any other child would have enjoyed it. Such a child, later in life, may misinterpret his interest in becoming a doctor or a scientist. Else, alternatively accept his interest of becoming a doctor or a scientist.
Nonetheless, later in the film, the elder daughter, now became motivated to sail the boat to her father’s destination. Eventually, she gained the physical strength to beat even the strongest of the male wrestlers in the community and went on to become a national champion.
The film also featured the contestation between the liberal lifestyle which the elder daughter (Geeta Phogat) was adopting at National Academy of Sports (NSA), Patiala and the relatively conservative, transcendental lifestyle, which was enforced by her father. It can be argued that later lifestyle was important for her to be focused on becoming a great wrestler. The narrative of the film was criticizing the lifestyle (and the short term arrogance) by citing it as one of the reasons for her defeat in a number of international competitions. The mud-wrestling match between the father and daughter was symbolizing this contest.
After a few scenes, the girl realized that the father was right. At this point, she cuts her newly grown hair to ‘boy-cut’ to accept the old (but archaic) lifestyle again. It is worth noticing that the ‘boy-cut’ here was not ‘needed’ as the girl was now playing a ‘mat-based wrestling’ and not a ‘mud-based’ wrestling’. The ‘boy-cut’ was a symbol for the subservient, in other words, the ‘obedient daughter’ of a father.
Later, the movie tends to diverge from this logic by bringing the nationalist rationale in the movie. The scene where the father (Aamir Khan) motivates her daughter to become a role model for other girls in the society. Surely, she did everything to become a role model. However, Geeta as a role model for other girls in the society is different from Geeta as a daughter at first place.
As a role model, she will be a representative of a sport which has never been thought as girl’s sport. Her image will motivate other girls to ‘choose’ wrestling out of their interest irrespective of whether or not their fathers would want them or not. But Geeta as a daughter became one wrestler, at least from the perspective presented by the film, only to fulfill her father’s dream, she didn’t ‘choose’ to become one.
Hence, it can be concluded that Dangal presents a ‘limited’ version of women empowerment whose protagonist is a patriarch. Namrata Joshi aptly describes this in her Review featured in The Hindu on Thursday. She describes Mahavir of Dangal as “A patriarch who may seem rigid, unbending and dictatorial; whose ways may seem to cause immediate pain and discomfort but ensure a happy future for the daughters (and the nation) in the long run.” But not a ‘patron’ for women empowerment.
Prakash Gupta is a Research Associate with IIM Ahmedabad. Prior to this, he worked as CSR consultant and SBI Youth For India fellow. As a development professional, his interests are rural development, sociology of development and development economics. He completed his post-graduation in Development Studies from IIT Guwahati.