Dangal is a recent film about Indian women’s wrestling. It is a box office phenomenon in India. It looks set to be the highest grossing Hindi movie of this year, if not of all time. Dangal is based upon a true story. A man from a small village, Mahavir Singh Phogat, sets his heart on making his son a World Champion. The son never materialises. The man has daughters instead. At first, he gives up on his dream. He comes from a cultural environment in which women are devalued and are not allowed to wrestle. However, one day he realises that he can make his daughters into World Champions too. Thus, the fight against the system begins. He forces discipline upon his daughters and trains them. He overcomes the cult of chauvinism in his village first. He makes others accept that women can be wrestlers. The dirtiness of India’s worthless sports organisation is the next target. He perseveres in spite of lack of funding and low expectations. Despite all the odds, his daughter wins India’s first ever commonwealth gold for India in women’s wrestling.
There has been some controversy over Dangal in Indian film criticism. The feminist message is clearly powerful. Women should have the same opportunities as men. As the film shows, the plight of Indian woman in rural communities is still woeful. When the father wishes for a boy rather than a girl, this reflects an Indian mentality. Girls are regarded as worthless compared to boy children by some backward Indians. There are abortion communities in India in which people kill their daughters in the womb as they don’t want to give birth to them. The film also vocalises the plight of many women in Indian communities. They are not thought of. Their life is to do the domestic chores and then to be married to whomsoever their fathers wish. The father in this movie is different. He thinks for his daughters. He plans their future carefully. He says that they are to be made so able that they will be able to choose their own husbands.
On the other hand, some people have attacked Mahavir Singh Phogat for his supposedly brutal training methods. These included cutting the hair of his daughters short and making them wear shorts. Some have questioned the message sent out to parents. Should a father be a tyrant and force his dream upon others? A feminist argument against the film would be that it presents a man as a hero rather than a woman. Surely a feminist film should have a woman as a hero?
Dangal is illustrative of an emerging world-wide problem with the translation of feminist concepts into cinema. This year, Disney released three movies in which women were the heroes. There is Zootopia, Finding Dory and Moana. The question is, how much do these films really engage with feminist concepts? Are they just paying lip service to the concepts of feminism so that women will watch them? I will not go into an extended analysis of the Disney movies. My intention here is merely to point out the serious problems with Dangal.
I will state at the outset that I am not an unbiased viewer. Aamir Khan, the star of the movie, is one of my favourite actors. I also have a daydream like the hero portrayed in the movie. For a fan of athletics and gymnastics, it hurts that India has no serious athletes or gymnasts. This year was the first time in history that an Indian woman made it into the gymnastics apparatus finals for vault. She got fourth place, despite performing the most difficult vault in the competition. My daydream is to see an Indian or member of the Asian Diaspora winning a gold medal in athletics or gymnastics. I dream of showing the world that an individual of Indian origin can compete and win and at a world level. I dream of showing the world that we are just as able.
However, my sympathies for the movie will not affect my assessment of it. For the movie, and the world, have serious failings. The first problem is with the nature of the feminist message in the movie. I will state at the outset that I do not think that women should stay in the home and should only be mothers. I do not think that. Men could equally well fulfil those duties. However, what I disagree with is the idea in the movie that tending the home, doing the cooking and raising the children are worthless tasks and beneath contempt for a modern and liberated individual. It is all very well to pursue a career. However, the basis of society is the home and the children. Children are the future. It does not matter if a man or a woman looks after the home and the children. But someone has to do it. Far from being worthless and unimportant, those jobs are the most important.
While I write, an obesity epidemic is gripping the world. This is because people no longer know how to do the cooking and look after the health of family members through food. It is the result of parents that don’t pass on cooking skills to their children. People eat ready meals and at restaurants instead of eating nutritious home cooking. Wealthy individuals give their children to others to be raised. They think of parenting as a degrading task. Why should they be locked in the degraded domestic sphere? They think their careers are more important. They buy supposed expertise in raising children instead. However, this strategy of raising children is not good enough for the average person. I will go further and say that it is not good enough for wealthy people. Above education, children need love. There have been studies on Romanian orphans which show that lack of love and parental figures severely damages children both physically and mentally with long term effects in life. Is the love of paid strangers good enough? While we have the institution of the family, I say it is not good enough. What skills can such delegators pass on to their own children? We have a duty to pass on our experiences and knowledge to the next generation.
It can be seen that such people value their careers to such an extent that they fail as complete human beings. They really believe that working, in most cases, for someone else to become richer, is better than nurturing life and the home. This is not only wrong and foolish. It is a sin against humanity.
The second big problem with the message of Dangal is the status given to the individual and the state. Firstly, the movie is clearly a celebration of Mahavir Singh Phogat. He was just one man that went against the world and the system and triumphed. The success of his daughter is the product of his will. This supposedly free individual is a worthless construct derived from the contemptible Imperial history of Great Britain. He is bound up with the modern day nation state which is based on the idea of the nation in the Bible. I am not Christian, I am an atheist. Why should I be forced to believe in this individual of the Christian? The individual is never free. The individual is not the embodiment of freedom and power. Individuality comes from a society. The society that the individual comes from in the film is the individual of the state. He dreams of winning a gold medal for the state. The motivation for all of his actions is so that the flag of India will fly higher than the flags of other countries. I say that the state is evil. It is an arbitrary, historical dividing practice. The world should make do without states and the nation. The state is getting in the way of true community. The state only creates insiders and outsiders. It is not something to dedicate a life to. It is sinful. It is an absurd limitation.
Feminism itself cannot support the state. The state is run by men and for men. It serves the interest of the powerful. Feminism attacks the powerful and their power.
I have outlined my position. I wanted to love the film. I enjoyed the fighting scenes. I admired the lesson of absolute discipline that was portrayed in the film. I enjoyed the acting. However, there is a balance that must be struck between love and conscience. My conscience cannot support the overall message of the movie. And thus, it is a film that I cannot recommend. It is not a film for the feminist. And it is not a film for the Indian. The nation state was forced on India. It is the political legacy of imperialism and the British Raj. The emancipated feminist and the emancipated Indian will never support it.