As the lights went down in the theater, I thought back to other Bollywood films (read: Shah Rukh Khan films) I had seen before and realized I had no idea what to expect for Dangal, directed by Nitesh Tiwari. In fact, I knew very little about the film at all—I knew it was a sports movie, not a romantic movie like other Bollywood films I’d seen, but that was about it. So I was thrilled and surprised when Dangal turned out to be much, much more than a sports movie. Dangal is a beautiful, engaging film with a vibrant soundtrack and highly quotable dialogue, as well as powerful values in the importance of family and female empowerment.
Dangal is based on the true story of Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Aamir Khan) and his two daughters, Geeta and Babita Phogat (played by Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra, respectively). Mahavir was a wrestler (dangal in Hindi), who was never able to achieve his goal of bringing home a gold medal for his country of India. So when his daughters showed a natural talent for fighting, he became their coach and raised them as champion wrestlers. In 2010, Geeta won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, and in 2012 was the first female Indian wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. Babita, her younger sister, also won a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Knowing the true story behind the film certainly makes the drama more impactful, but I was impressed with how engaging the film was overall. I’m not normally a big fan of sports movies, but Dangal was highly entertaining and inspiring.
The film is centered around a strong emphasis on of the importance of family and female empowerment, as one would expect from a movie about two female wresters being coached by their father. It doesn’t edge around the topic, either. The additional struggles faced by Geeta and Babita, both from society and the sports world itself, are expressed in their full hardship. The impact of their success and the importance of both women as role models for girls all over India is also emphasized. Some, however, criticized the film for focusing on Mahavir, rather than his daughters.
As a further bonus, Dangal delivers the engaging story and inspiring morals through beautiful cinematography and a fantastic soundtrack. Vibrant, colorful scenes of Indian landscapes are contrasted with stunning physicality in the wrestling matches. The choreography, slow-motion film, and attention to detail during fights had me (quite literally) on the edge of my seat. During both fights training montages, Dangal’s driving soundtrack whisks the viewer right into the arduous, grueling world of dangal. At other times, songs highlight emotions and difficulty. Between the soundtrack and the cinematography alone, the film was a joy to experience.
The wild success of Dangal may come as a surprise to some, considering how unusual the film is by both Bollywood and American film standards. “It’s a marvelous thing that it has done so well because it’s not a traditional Bollywood film,” Anupama Chopra, a film critic and author of several books on the industry said to The Guardian. “There’s no love story and it’s about very strong women. There are no gorgeous young people romancing each other in Switzerland. The only traditionally sellable element is Aamir Khan, and he plays a much, older overweight man – and yet it becomes the biggest hit in Indian cinema.”
And yet, Dangal has become the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time.
This came as no surprise to me after I saw the movie. The eye- candy cinematography and gorgeous soundtrack are just the start of things I adore about Dangal. It uses those strengths to deliver a highly-engaging story with fantastic wrestling choreography and important values. Gender equity, determination, passion, and the importance of family are all at the core of this film. While it may not have met my expectations of a Shah Rukh Khan role, Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal surpassed my hopes in all other regards.
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