Only a couple of days after Dangal was released, the figure of the father came under serious question. While some joked about it referencing the film’s hero Aamir Khan’s previous ventures like Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots, others wondered if this was really a ‘feminist’ film as Mahavir Phogat is in the centre of the everything.
Like Pink, Dangal’s feminism may be complicated in parts but it is not problematic. A common theme that has been debated about is the obedience of the daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat – but more on that later. Dangal strongly challenges patriarchy in the stronghold of the Khap, a group still pulling strongly on the strings of control of women. Dangal’s un-ironic presentation of the nuskhas that villagers advised Mahavir to apply to have a boy, Mahavir’s friend’s smug smile as he offers him a box of laddoos for his new born son, the taunts of the same people as Geeta and Babita begin their training in the village are real scenarios that people not just in Haryana but in most of the country, face.
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In the face of it all, Mahavir’s realisation of the non-difference between a girl child and boy child comes as revelation to himself. In it lies the first flicker of feminism as Mahavir’s face lights up watching his daughters demonstrate fighting, almost chiding himself for being so utterly stupid longing for a son. His famed dialogue “mhaari chhori chhoron se kam hai ke” was unnecessary. His face said it all as he watched his daughters fight.
In the rigorous training that turned two young women into obedient daughters, Mahavir’s feminism flowers even more as he refuses to treat them differently. Every action of his that eliminates femininity in the girls pushes them towards strength but not masculinity. One has to take into account that Mahavir did not want to turn the girls into boys but instill in them enough strength to fight as whoever they were. I couldn’t resist sobbing as the girls pleaded for their hair but I also understood that this was a but a lesson for the both of them in discipline – and also for practical purposes. As a parent who has lived through thorough patriarchy, the cutting of hair could not have been easy for Mahavir either – he lived in a society that treated hair an essential ornament. But more for convenience – and later for plot continuity – hair had to become an issue.
The girls’ need to constantly go back to their old life also stemmed from the belief that girls are supposed to be a certain way. Once they realise that wrestling is everything, they not only discard that thought process but also don’t think it matters. Geeta’s eventual lure back into that life is a plot point that was slightly unsettling. Could she have it all – could a woman have it all without shedding all the so-called characteristics of the female, especially if they wanted it? They absolutely can. In real life, Geeta Phogat doesn’t have short hair, she recently got married and has a chance at a happy and fulfilling life however she wants. Mahavir did foresee it. So in the film, the ultimate return to the ‘boy’ look doesn’t seem to me the restriction of her femininity but a comeback to the old life that helped her practice discipline.
In feminist discussions, one often talks about the starting line for men and women and the barriers that come in both the paths. Mahavir, as a father and coach, removed those barriers and in it lies not only Dangal’s but Mahavir’s feminism.
Is it problematic that he forced his will upon his children? Perhaps. But perhaps not. All’s well that ends well seems to ring a bell here but Mahavir, as a father, did have a right to test his daughters. Had they failed and then he had continued to train them, that might have been an issue. As a parent – and this also comes from sentimentality – I’d say he had a right to guide them once. From then on, however, it was Geeta and Babita’s fight against patriarchy – one that won them medals and everyone’s hearts.
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