Aamir Khan, as he is wont to say himself, lacks the charisma of his peers, Shah Rukh and Salman. But what he does have is that rare ability to toe the line between art, social commentary and popular cinema. While Salman Khan doesn’t even try, happy playing Bhai for an audience who’d pay to watch him, Shah Rukh’s better films didn't really set the box office on fire.
On the other hand, Aamir Khan knows how to take a subject which might not be considered sexy, add the appropriate amount of masala to make it palatable across the class barrier and create something which entertains us while planting a seed in our head. Whether it is the needs of special children in Taare Zameen Par, the bugbear of engineering in 3 Idiots or even a show like Satyamev Jayate, he makes us think. It's not that we don't care, it's just that we have enough going on in our lives to worry about society when we spend our hard-earned movie at the theatre. But somehow, Aamir manages to squeeze in a lesson while entertaining us.
And in the Nitesh Tiwari directed Dangal, he takes the two most contrasting ideologies of our times – feminism and nationalism – to craft an emotional tale that will soften the heart of hardened cynics. Now Mahavir Singh Phogat’s story is well-known, his iron-willed determination and bordering-on-cruelty parenting/coaching style to catapult his daughters Geeta and Babita to international stardom. But the genius of Dangal lies in subtly bringing all of it onscreen, something that’s easier said than done as Dhoni fans learned after watching the onscreen adaptation.
Now there has been some Twitter criticism of Aamir Khan’s portrayal of Mahavir Singh Phogat, of having a male patriarch becoming a torch-bearer of feminism. The criticism of Phogat shows much of the ignorance of what passes as intelligent debate these days, because honestly, Phogat has done much more to smash the patriarchy than most arm-chair critics. Like Pink, Dangal will go some way to help bring change in the common man's mindset about women.
The movie raises some tough questions as well. Should parents live vicariously through their children? There are no black-and-white answers here. But there are so many beautiful moments that try to answer these questions. One of them comes when Geeta and Babita, fed up with their father’s dictatorial training methods wish their fate was different. This is when their 14-year-old friend, who is being forced to get married, wishes that her father was like Mahavir Singh Phogat who at least believed in his daughters and didn’t treat them like a burden.
There are other such heart-rending moments, a scene where Geeta calls up her father after an embarrassing loss and neither of them can say a word and just keep sobbing.
The movie also pays homage to the grit that it takes to get to the top in sports. You don’t achieve greatness with balance. The greatest sportsmen in the world spend hours honing their craft, and moderation simply doesn’t lead to success. Child abuse? Probably, but if you want to be the best in your field, you need to give up everything tethering you to normal life.
The only place one felt that the movie became too filmy was Girish Kulkarni’s portrayal of the wrestling coach who is at loggerheads with Phogat over coaching techniques. The pantomime act almost felt forced, going into an absurdist phase where he gets Phogat locked up during the final match. You didn’t need a person to play the villain here, the real battle throughout the movie was against the societal mindset.
Along with that, Aamir, who has been on the wrong end of the nationalism debate in the past with his ill-advised and frankly illogical comments, makes sure to ride the nationalism wave this time. But it felt a little in-your-face and blatant. A Muslim girl gets prasad for Phogat, shouts bharat mata ki jai and then the entire theatre stands up for the national anthem, showing that you don’t need court orders to enforce something on people, when a film manages to tug at your heartstrings.
All in all, Dangal is a reminder to us why we ought to be thankful for the existence of Aamir Khan, a man who tries to tell us a fresh tale while trying to entertain us. In a cesspool of mediocrity that Bollywood has become, worrying more about marketing budgets and fake hashtags than the script, Aamir Khan stands as a beacon of hope, who respects the intellect of his audience and tries to push the boundary, one film at a time.