If you were to YouTube “Geeta Phogat’s Commonwealth Games gold-medal bout” and wait wide-eyed for the snatch of Geeta overpowering her snarling Australian opponent with an overhead flip, you’ll be left wondering where facts end and fiction begins. Such a move is non-existent in that clip. Geeta didn’t endure the heightened drama that was contrived in the climax of Dangal.
It was, to tweak a well-worn sporting cliche, a walk on the mat. She thrashed her Australian opponent (8-0) without conceding a point in two rounds, let alone having to summon an outrageous manoeuvre to topple her in the dying seconds of the third round and realise her father’s dream. The climax, in reel life, couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
All these contrivances are fine. Movies, like sport, celebrate dramatic excess. So the over-dramatisation of an achievement, or the gold medal-clinching manoeuvre, are understandable, and perhaps excusable. But less so the tampering with cold, hard facts.
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While there’s no dispute that the film realistically encapsulates the struggles of the Phogat family — the snide remarks and sneers Babita and Geeta were subjected to in their early years, and the general stigma of women breaching a predominantly male bastion — in the end, Dangal turns into a formulaic film, following the usual patterns. So much so that we know the ending: We know what we are supposed to think and we know who we are supposed to cheer. There is deceit, intrigue, a villain and a crisis, all spun together to create heightened drama. That’s the formulaic curse of most sporting biopics that Bollywood churns out.
There was no need for the manufactured drama. The narrative premise of Mahavir Phogat and his daughters busting stereotypes by itself makes for a stirring plot, and would have worked even without weaving in a villain in the form of her coach or a crisis wherein Mahavir is locked in the basement of the stadium. Apart from winning a few more eyeballs and selling a few more tickets, these liberties would only trigger needless scandals in the country’s sporting fraternity. Already, there are hushed whispers within the fraternity that the then-wrestling coach Jagminder Singh is planning to move court against the depiction of the coach as a villain.
While the filmmakers can get away with the “characters are fictional” disclaimer, in the mind of the spectator, the image of the then-national coach would have already been formed as a conniving and jealous malefactor. The disclaimer, in this context, is a licence or even a liberty to fictionalise and over-dramatise.
Dangal is not a stray instance of a factual core of a biopic being compromised for packaging a best-selling drama. This is the trope of most of its predecessors. Take for instance, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the biopic of arguably India’s best ever track-and-field athlete, Milkha Singh.
There is a sequence in the film, where Milkha is leading the race in the 1960 Olympics, and then slows down and turns over his shoulder to look at his competitors, only to see them outrun him in a blur. The fact was, he never led the race at any point. He was second, third and on the final turn, fourth. Like Dangal, there was little need for over-dramatisation — Milkha Singh’s story is riveting, with Partition pangs and all.
When a sportsman’s story becomes an object for consumption, such pulp-fictionising is only expected. It’s especially temping if the subject’s career is less-storied like Geeta’s or Milkha’s. Would they have taken such liberties if the biopic was on Sachin Tendulkar? It’s less likely that a coach would be projected as colluding against him or locking his parents or brother in a dingy cell at a stadium.
Such creative liberties set a wrong precedent, especially at a time when Bollywood is fixated with sportsmen. After biopics on Mohammed Azharuddin, M.S. Dhoni and the Phogat household, one wonders the narrative tweaks that await the soon-to-be adapted stories of sportsmen like hockey legend Dhyan Chand.
There is a cricketing analogy in Dangal that is symbolic of made-in-Bollywood sporting biopics. Mahavir Singh Phogat explains to the national coach, bent on re-moulding Geeta into a defensive wrestler, that an athlete’s natural instincts shouldn’t be tampered with. “Yeh toh wahi baat hui ki Sehwag ko bolo ki Rahul Dravid jaise khele. Yeh karne se na woh Dravid ban payega aur na Sehwag reh jayega.” (If you try to make Sehwag play like Rahul Dravid, he will be neither Dravid, nor Sehwag.) It doesn’t come naturally for Bollywood to tell the tale of sportsmen without fiction and drama.
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