We wanted the viewers to say: ‘Wow, she has fought like a wrestler,’ says Nitesh Tiwari while discussing his latest project.
What drew you to work on a biopic based on wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat and his daughters?
Two of my friends, who worked in Disney, came to me four years ago with a basic synopsis on Mahavir Singh Phogat, a wrestler from Haryana who trained his daughters to become world champions in wrestling. Though the synopsis was very short, its premise was very interesting. That made me think that if we dig deeper into it, maybe an entertaining, engaging and meaningful story would emerge. There was not much information on the internet on him then. I went to Patiala and Bhiwani to meet his daughters Geeta and Babita, as well as their coaches. Getting to know the wrestlers so closely was an eye-opener. I also visited Mahavir Singh and his wife in their village Balali. The ingredients of a good story were there and the task ahead was to put them together into an interesting narrative.
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How long did you take to develop the project?
It took us almost a year to write the script of Dangal. However, during this period we were also working on Bhootnath Returns (2014). We did not want Dangal to become preachy or heavy. So we decided to add a layer of humour — I don’t mean roll-on-the-floor-laughing kind of humour, but something which makes you smile and takes away the seriousness. Also we needed to find the graph — just because we had lots of material, we could not put everything into the story. The core story of Dangal is close to the life of Mahavir Singh and his daughters. We have fictionalised a bit to better the storytelling. For the same purpose, we have altered the magnitude of certain events.
The movie and its tagline carry a social message.
It is inherent in the story of Mahavir Singh and his daughters. He braved all societal odds and trained his daughters, who became world-class wrestlers. Training girls in a male-dominated sport in a place like Haryana, at a time when women’s wrestling had just been introduced, is quite incredible. Dangal is a mix of many things with wrestling as the film’s backdrop. At its core, it is a family drama that carries a strong social message. It is about willpower, a man who believed in his vision, and empowerment.
Sport movies in India are often criticised for not being authentic.
That’s precisely why the casting of the girls (Fatima Sana Shaikh as older Geeta Phoghat, Zaira Wasim as young Geeta, Sanya Malhotra as older Babita Kumari and Suhani Bhatnagar as young Babita) took such a long time. After the casting was done, we had to wait for the girls to get ready for the shoot. They were trained for almost a year. How do you keep people interested in a sport like wrestling through a movie? The challenge was to shoot a film for which we didn’t have any benchmark or reference point. We didn’t want to rely on filming techniques and edits to give the wrestling scenes an authentic feel. We wanted the viewers to say: ‘Wow, she has fought like a wrestler’.
Did all this stretch the period of its making to four years?
First, we wrote for a couple of years and then we were waiting for Aamir Khan to say ‘yes’. The first task after he came on board was to get the cast right. We needed two sets of girls — a younger Geeta and Babita, and their older selves. We had many criteria. They had to look like Aamir’s daughters, the younger ones had to look like the older ones, they had to transform themselves into wrestlers, and they needed to be good actors. They had to cut their hair — all of them had beautiful long hair. Most importantly, they had to be willing to learn wrestling. Many girls dropped out because they could not wrestle, which is not an easy sport.
You have written all the three movies you have directed.
Since I started my career as a writer, it is very natural for me to write my script. I became a director reluctantly. After Vikas Bahl and I wrote Chillar Party (2011), no one came forward to direct it. A cast involving ten child actors and one dog was not an interesting proposition for any director. Instead of abandoning the script, we chose to direct it ourselves. If I had messed up Chillar Party, I would not have gone back to direction.
All your films have had child actors. Have you become adept at handling them?
Children need special attention, especially the way I work with them. Once a child I was working with for a commercial became nervous once the star he was shooting with arrived on the sets. However, in feature films, during the auditions, we make kids meet the stars. In Dangal, Aamir auditioned with all the kids in the final stage. One could figure out if the kids were going to be over-awed by the stars.
Your wife Ashwini Iyer Tiwari directed Nil Battey Sannata (2015). How easy is it for two directors to live together?
It is easy since the other person understands your profession and thought-process. However, she has her own style of filmmaking. Likewise, I can’t make a film the way she does. We are very different as filmmakers — I am very methodical and meticulous. She is more instinctive. I am more sceptical about taking risks. I follow the proven path. She surprises me. I would have made Nil Battey Sannata differently. I am glad she made it her way.