Thursday, December 29, 2016

To be critical of Dangal is fine, to be dismissive is not

Balu Sunil

The movie Dangal has provoked many reactions. This article is an attempt to pen down some observations after watching the movie and reading several reviews around it. While there are some reviews which do analyse the movie form a positive angle, numerous reviews and social media posts have being extremely critical of the movie [1], thoroughly dismissing the progressive potential of Dangal. While it is important that Dangal like any other movie has to be analysed critically, it is pointless to have an extremely condescending take on the movie and claim that it is yet another movie whose message reifies the existing patriarchal structures and no more.   

One major line of criticism pointed at Dangal is that despite the achievements of female protagonists, they do not succeed in transcending the patriarchal structure which is in place. They have not yet been liberated from its shackles and never really come out from the shadows of the patriarch who is their father. While this reading is not completely off the mark, is it not important to consider the socio-political context of the movie and its protagonists while making these remarks? Should it be the case that we, the liberated individuals who live in urban India and mostly from upper middle class backgrounds recognise movies only when if it satisfies our level of socio-political consciousness?  Nowhere in the movie do the female protagonists smash or even question the structure of patriarchy and even in the climax scenes they have not escaped from it despite their laudable achievements. But what the movie does portray is some definitive strides against the patriarchal structure. These strides are extremely important for they eventually culminate in enabling us to question the roots of patriarchy. To not recognise these aspects and to be merely dismissive of it because the female protagonists in the movie continue to be not liberated relative to those in urban metropolitan areas is to have a very simplistic understanding of the movie. In the male chauvinist sea of rural Haryana, where female foeticides and Khaps are the   rule of the day, the female protagonists of the movie , although forced by their father are eventually questioning  some norms which are ingrained in the societal psyche for centuries. While we should be critical of the numerous angles of oppression which are unquestioned by the movie, it is also important to recognise this angle.

Another criticism is the denial of agency for the female characters. The point being that like any other quintessential male patriarch, Mahavir Singh Phogat imposes his whims on his children and therefore despite their laudable achievements, these women like those present in any other patriarchal household did not get to choose the lives they led. But while making this point, the totality of the events have to be also given due importance. This very patriarchal act of Phogat opens up a series of events and realisations which make even him question the logic of male domination in the society reflected in many of the dialogues and acts of the character. In one instance, when his wife who is extremely perturbed by the changes happening in the bodies of her daughters which is in complete taboo of conventional gender norms of rural Haryana asks him how they will find suitable boys for marriage; he remarkably replies that  his daughters will seek boys rather than the other way around. In one of the reviews of the movie, the author points that through this dialogue, Phogat aims at nothing but reversal of gender of roles and existence status-quo.  The author probably expects a rural Haryanvi patriarch to make a sanitised politically correct statement when questioning age old beliefs while replying to such queries. This was one of the most ludicrous understandings of this reply of Phogat whose only intention through these remarks to his wife is that his children will not be bowed down by traditional gender roles. The point being that these are important remarks which transgress deep rooted patriarchal structures without even the protagonist realising it. In the course of the movie, we witness further transformation of Phogat when he tells his daughter Geetha before the Common wealth games finals that she is not merely contesting for her or her own country, but for many of those women who are denied opportunities because of their sex. The point being that his dictatorial imposition over his daughters to choose wrestling alone cannot be the vantage point in analysing Phogat and his daughters. 

The characters in the movie, especially that of Phogat’s undergo an evolution, subtly questioning the at least some aspects of patriarchy embedded in his consciousness. Moreover, in the absence of a strong movement questioning patriarchal hegemony, this for all purposes is probably the path traversed by rural patriarchs like Phogat in realising the impact of patriarchy which they have internalised. To smirk at it is to smirk at the reality.

None of this is to say that Dangal is devoid of criticisms. Many reviews have touched upon it and have made relevant observations. Apart from these criticisms, I felt that several dimensions of nationalism as portrayed in Dangal were negative in nature. This does not mean that Dangal should not have touched upon patriotic sentiments; but there was no need to portray the Australian opponents in a negative manner in order to instil patriotic sentiments among the audience. It was unnecessary and would not have affected even the commercial aspects of the movie.  

In the end, contexts are important. It is pointless to expect characters rooted in one of the most patriarchal settings to communicate and understand patriarchy in the same way as the enlightened educated souls of urban settings. The fight against patriarchy is very much context specific. The burning problems that we face in urban upper middle class locations are significantly different from the questions in rural hinterland where the denial of education and right to choose a partner of one’s own accord still remain as important problems faced by women. The point being that each context produces its own struggles and there is no point in any sort of gradation.   Most importantly, when we move from reel life to real life, these initiatives of Phogat family has led to the formation of institutions where the taboos associated with female wrestling have being questioned significantly. In the wrestling arena of their village, many girls practise to be budding champions providing them an alternative from being completely enslaved by patriarchy. Are not these remarkable achievements? Is it correct to merely look down on these developments only because of the important role played by the patriarch in these developments?

Lastly, many reviews and social media posts which are critical of Dangal is reflective of a very outright condescending approach that we who have being privileged enough to study in the elite Universities have  towards  those commercial movies which attempt to address social issues within their limitations. Like PK, which questioned the very logic of religion in the time of ascendant Hindu nationalism, Dangal which reflects upon the questions of gender oppression faced by rural women in Haryana within the confined boundaries of the Hindi commercial cinema is an important movie. We should problematise it, but should not out rightly reject it. Otherwise our reactions may seem like nothing but self-righteous snobbery of some individuals living in their own comfortable cubicles.

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The Author is doing PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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