Dangal didn’t get a wide release in the US, but I saw it in China, where it consumed the box office a few years ago. Dangal made more money in China than in its native India!
Now that I’ve seen it, though, I can understand why. Dangal is a heartwarming story of family, growing up, and sports. Sports movies tend to be heartwarming, but this one is particularly good because of its feminist message. Here’s how it stacks up to our Scale:
Not offensive to women = 1/1 pt / Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts / Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts
The main character is Mahavir Singh Phogat. An amateur wrestler in his youth, Mahavir is forced to give up his dreams to find gainful employment. So, he puts all his hopes for a medal (and bringing glory to India) onto his future son, deciding to make that child a wrestling star…but then he has four daughters. Mahavir gives up his dreams of training a son to be a great wrestler and resigns himself to his fate.
Then his two older daughters, Geeta and Babita, beat up a boy for making fun of them, and Mahavir realizes he can still bring glory to India. He begins to train Geeta and Babita in wrestling.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts
Sports movies are designed to pull at the heartstrings and this one is no exception! The film spans the years of the sisters’ training, montaging us through parts and slowing down at big moments. There’s a little more emphasis on older sister Geeta and how she changes after going to college (an elite sports school actually). She pulls away from her father and his style of training, but after a series of high-profile losses she eventually makes up with him and finds her way back to her family.
The movie veered into schmaltz at times but beyond that, it was enjoyable and had me on the edge of my seat for each match.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5/5 pts
I do wish the movie had allowed older sister Geeta to find more of a balance between her personal freedom and her father’s way of doing things. However, I didn’t think it was offensive. Yes, she takes on more feminine things like growing her hair out and wearing nail polish, but when she gives these things up again in the third act, it feels less like a rejection of the feminine and more of a return to taking her father’s way of doing things seriously. The movie isn’t overtly feminist, and the argument could be made that the girls are made to be more masculine, but in a highly gendered society like India, they do have to make some concessions. In the beginning, the sisters fight boys their age. As they move into the elite levels, they fight in women’s matches and tournaments, and the movie never says that they are bringing any less honor to India or their father.
Like me, you can probably name a handful of great sports movies about women (Stick It, anyone?? Just kidding, I mean A League of Their Own and that ilk). But I looked it up for you, and a vast majority of sports movies are still about men. Not only that, most women in these films are sexualized side characters with no physical agency. Dangal does fall into a few tropes, the most obvious one being the idea that we need to be convinced in movie after movie that women are just as good at sports as men. This mindset can be very easily traced to the struggle women are having now to receive equal pay to male counterparts.
All that being said, Dangal is positive representation of women in a genre that typically relegates them to the background, and for that it gets full points today.
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