“AND finally, after 10 years, we all hear what we have been waiting to hear from him,” Dangal’s self parodying narrator, Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan)’s nephew, says towards the end of the movie.
Mahavir- the Aamir Khan avatar of him- takes his time, tapping his daughter’s cheeks, and says “Syabaas”. The subtitles read “I’m proud of you”. You half expect there to be something more than Syabaas, but then you realise that is as far as Mahavir offers in terms of words.
Two years ago, Aamir Khan ran butt naked in a desert and also made quirky moves as an extraterrestrial being in “PK”. He hasn’t featured in a movie since. Instead, he gained over 20kg and lost the same amount, toiling for close to two years to prepare for Dangal. Unlike Farhan Akhtar’s Milkha Singh (from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a biography about one of India’s most celebrated track athletes), battle/sport scenes for his own character was very limited, roughly amounting for the first 15 minutes of the movie.
But in that opening scene of “Dangal” (Wrestling), as Mahavir battles a man who is taller and has much larger build, manages to floor the latter, and then triumphantly tells him not to be disheartened for he had just lost to a National level champion- there is moment a silent applause, a moment of heroism- uncharacteristic of Aamir’s recent films.
But having followed Aamir’s work, especially over the past decade, it would come as no surprise if Aamir worked hard to shed all that weight and gain a wrestler’s physique for that scene alon. In terms of screen time, no justice was done to his efforts, but in terms of setting the tempo and creating the persona of Mahavir- it was impeccable. And so was Aamir Khan’s dedication to his character and craft.
Dangal’s story offers very little surprises or twists along the way- Geeta and Babita Phogat’s feats at the international wrestling arena has been well documented and is only a Google/Wikipedia search away. And Mahavir’s own influence on his daughters, nieces and his whole Balali village in Haryana was also well documented in Aamir’s very own talk show, Satyamev Jayate, more than two years ago.
But what Dangal does offer are spellbinding, restrained performances and a production quality that clearly showed why it took two years to put together this film. From the casting, to the wrestling, the recreation of real life match scenarios, and the training given to the actors involved in all the fight scenes, the efforts are plainly visible.
What Dangal proves more than anything in Bollywood’s quest to be international is that money need not be used towards CGI to make a great, epic movie- instead, spending them on actual training, props and meticulous casting does wonders. After the casting of Chak de India (2007, of a female team of hockey players) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Dangal takes detail to another level- seemingly demanding perfection in every frame; even from fleeting characters such as Geeta’s Commonwealth Games opponents of other nationalities.
Nitesh Tiwari’s direction and writing keeps Dangal engaging in even fairly innocuous moments, including its choice of narrative. Without losing sight of Mahavir as being a hardman and a man of few words, Tiwari and his fellow writers negated through the trickier parts of Dangal’s narrative flow with ample amount of circumstantial humour to compensate for Mahavir’s limited dialogues, or lack of monologues.
Fatima Sana Sheikh and Sanya Malhotra were excellent in their respective roles as Geeta and Babita, especially in the intra-family dynamics that created a purposeful halfway point for the movie. Fatima especially excelled in her various transformations throughout, from sporting a long hair toreturning to wrestling form, and the whole array of emotions she brought to the intense climax wrestling matches.
Similarly, Zaira Wasim was also exceptional as the younger Geeta Phogat, carrying the transformation of the role from a regular Balali girl to a girl who could not sleep after losing her first Dangal to a man- with such aplomb.
Pritam, too, does an unspectacular, yet very solid, work in the music department. Hanikaarak Bapu, with the Haryanvi twang, brings out the flavours and the emotions of the two young kids who sees their own father as a torture instrument. Then there is the breezy Gilheriyaan throughout Geeta’s phase of rediscovering her freedom from Mahavir’s training regime.
Dangal’s greatest strength is its authenticity. You walk away from the cinema having been taken in by Mahavir, Geeta, Babita, and also that Haryanvi dialect that I’m trying to shake off my mind.
The stars playing these characters do not come into the picture- there are many times, however, that you wish Aamir Khan would punch a bad guy black and blue, before realising it would be out of character for him to do something like that.
But when the curtains draw, Aamir’s dedication in preparing for this role and actually ensure his character does not overshadow the narration is the mark of a craftsman par excellence. And just like in Rang de Basanti, Dangal is so much about what Khan underplayed as opposed to what he over played.
Dangal stands tall, and Aamir stands equally as tall in making it work. Allow yourself to feel some goosebumps as the year draws to a close.