DANGAL’s tale of unsung struggles

Praveen Verma, a former wrestler, is moved by the world of DANGAL 

Gama pahalwan at Eidgahi

Dangal means the Indian style wrestling competition for male pahalwans (wrestlers) and it has been an important form of entertainment for ages, especially in the rural parts of north and west India. Dangals are often used to settle personal scores between different Akharas and pahalwans. It’s a place where honour, reputation and social status are at stake, where personal and political rivalries are settled by fighting. For example, One of the most important Dangals would, until very recently, happen every Sunday at Eidgahi Maidan, Jama Masjid in Delhi. Itwari Dangal, as it was fondly called, was the place where pahalwans like Gama, Imam Baksh and Chandgiram would come to battle in front of thousands of wrestling lovers. I remember how badly I wanted to win the bout at Eidgahi Maidan whenever I used to come to Delhi. Victory at Eidgahi maidan meant more to me than winning anywhere else.

As the competition is strictly meant for male pahalwans, women are not even allowed to watch them fighting, let alone participate themselves. Something akin to Khap Panchayats, where women are still not welcome. Women are fairly newcomers in the wrestling arena, and have not been welcomed yet. In this context, to make a film on the emergence and development of women’s wrestling in India is a good start.

Dangal is based on the true story of Mahavir, his firebrand daughters and their ‘quietly’ active mother, and it is an important movie to watch for many reasons. Firstly, it portrays a father who wants his daughters to pursue something (wrestling) which was unimaginable at the time. It reveals what it took for the first generation of women wrestlers to break those masculine stereotypes, and depicts the overall position of wrestling in the realm of sports culture in India. There are so many goosebump inducing moments in the film to cheer about, for me at least. Writing is unknown territory for me, but there is a personal reason behind me writing this review. The release of this film forces me to say something which, as a former wrestler for almost ten years, I’ve always pondered on.

When Geeta came back from National Sports Academy (NSA), Patiala, she was a changed woman. She was no longer a girl who had just won the gold medal at the national games. She had long hair, went to Patiala to watch films, ate gol guppas, had painted nails etc.; things she was deprived of by her father (Mahavir) in Balali village, Bhivani in Haryana.

Mahavir noticed these changes and kept sulking, without saying a word. When she went to her father’s Akhara, she even tried to change the way Mahavir had been teaching wrestling. Mahavir’s masculinity was hurt, and in response he tried to teach Geeta a lesson, but eventually lost to her. This might be seen as one of the less important scenes in the movie, but for me, it says a lot!

Mahavir, who was always sure about his way of life and teachings, lost to his own daughter who he himself had taught. This was hard for him to accept. The defeat to his own daughter, a girl, hurt his masculinity deeply. A patriarch was made to taste the mud in his own den. There was no coming back from there. No sign of a truce or repentance from Geeta. Masculinity is not always challenged by big events, with grand opening. Patriarchy is and has been challenged in bits and pieces, in small steps, quietly. This is way too hard to digest, and especially difficult when you come from a place like Haryana, where women are killed for breaking gender stereotypes, in the name of honour.

Let’s take a look at another scene which was appealing in its own narrative. When Mahavir took Geeta to Rohtak to participate in one of the first Dangals of her life, she was looked down upon, taunted, made fun of. In real life, it wasn’t one of the easiest moment for Mahavir, let alone Geeta, who was 13 at that time. Women in Haryana are particularly domesticated by all these taunts by men, but men can’t handle the same treatment. They don’t know how to take shame. As if, they are not ready for it.

The most commendable thing shown here is what happens when Mahavir decided to put Geeta in front of thousands of male spectators, no matter how much they try to shame him. Eventually, Mahavir and Geeta have the last word. He is ashamed of the public in general and his clan members in particular, rather than his daughter. The scene where she tells her male opponent, “Chori samajhke mat ladiyo.” was an evocative one. This says a lot about the ways in which girls have been typecast by all Haryanvi society and the mard around them!

In an appealing scene, which might have been missed by many, Geeta Phogat won the gold medal at Commonwealth Games, 2010 in Delhi. The national anthem was played, but that wasn’t what Geeta was overwhelmed about. She was looking for her father in the stands, and when she saw him, she ran towards him and gave him the medal. The moment of winning a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games was more a moment of pride for her, her father and her family, than it was for the country.

The film revolves around the personal and social spaces of the Phogat sisters and Mahavir, and not in the spaces of nationalism or patriotism. Geeta’s achievement was more pronounced because she fought and won a battle against all the obstacles set out by a biased and exploitative society. She owed her success only to her parents and family, not to any nation or national sports body. Playing for India was merely a departure here and not the definitive moment. She understood, and as anyone who has knows a little about Indian wrestling and the social circles surrounding it will tell you, that the achievement is more important for her (or any other woman wrestler), and not the nation, because it enabled her to overcome constant fear and shame. It challenges the blindness that causes people to not see women as equal human beings in the region from where she comes from.

Her belief in her father more than the national team coach also confirms the stature of sports (read minus cricket) in this country. In this context, I can recall the recent example of Narsingh- Sushil Kumar drama which had reached the court. This incident also shows how contaminated the sports administration in general, and Wrestling federation in particular, has become.

Moreover, the women teams have been thoroughly neglected (materially as well as socially) in order to discourage them, rather than encouraging them to fight it out. The coaches have their own favouritism and are least serious regarding the team performances. Not surprisingly, the position of women’s team coach has been considered as a position of punishment. The recent coach of the team (who also assisted Amir Khan in the film) Kripa Shankar comes from Madhya Pradesh, and not from the North lobby (Haryana, Punjab administrators dominate the wrestling’s highest authority in India). Even the current Wrestling Federation of India chief, Brij Bhushan Saran Singh, a BJP member of parliament, is from Uttar Pradesh and doesn’t even have a distant relationship with wrestling!

In a country, where the cases of women players’ molestations and harassment are rampant (one cannot forget the case of women hockey players who were constantly molested by the head coach and were shown the door when they raised their voices), it is important to ask where one can go to regain their strength, assurance, confidence and trust? For Geeta and many others (for lack of any other structure to lean on), it was the father, who became sutradaar to reach where she did in 2010, despite the odds against a woman entering the wrestling arena.

The hardcore training may seem comical to some and frustrating to many when they do not understand the context. It is often traumatic, indeed frustrating and could be seen as forced, but we must ask ourselves, are there any alternatives? The film and the social context might not have a straight sociological answer for that and we may not always look for an answer. On explaining further, it is not easy to get away with caste and gender barriers in a society where lines are demarcated so sharply and doing anything in this regard could be ‘sehat ke liye haanikaarak’ sometime. Mahavir and his daughter did take that risk and overcome it. It may not appear perfect, but for the time being, this attempt/endeavour was necessary.

Sometime language cannot describe actions and their impact on a larger canvas. Mahavir’s life is one such example. He might come across as stubborn, choleric and unpalatable, but his actions throughout the film have larger implications. He was not there to champion the cause of gender justice, but the emergence of Geeta and other women barging into the ‘all-male club’ certainly paved the way for that. This is a welcome step, given the limited access to anything ‘social’ to women. This film has its own narrative and it is completely fine if it doesn’t suit our notions and convictions.

Mahavir may have won via Geeta through his perseverance, but he lost in bits and pieces, quietly to her as well. Dangal is not just an occasion or merely an event which happens once in a while for male pahalwans. For the Phogat family, it’s their everyday life and it isn’t always pleasant. Moreover, there are no unknown opponents to fight against in this Dangal, but their own family, society and patriarchy as a whole. Dangal stands apart from many other sports movies (Chak De India, Mary Kom etc.), as it neither makes high claims, nor does it try to achieve them. It’s a tale of unsung struggles and overcoming them.

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Praveen Verma Written by:

The writer was a wrestler for more than ten years but ended up in University by chance! Now doing PhD from Department of History, Delhi University and is associated with New Socialist Inititative (NSI).

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