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Bollywood's Dangal: a triumph of feminism or of patriarchy?

I remember my experience watching the magnanimously popular Amir Khan starrer Dangal for the very first time: I was inspired by the story of these two young ladies and their driven father who stopped at nothing to achieve their goals of becoming wrestlers despite immense societal pressures, strongly challenging gender stereotypes and advocating for gender equality in India. However, when I revisited the film later again in 2022, I realised the movie wasn’t all that strong a feminist film and disappointingly falls short of conveying a strong message of defying gender roles and encouraging female empowerment and agency. Here’s why:

Let’s start from the beginning. The movie begins by introducing Mahavir Singh (Aamir Khan), a national-level award winning wrestler who retired because he was unable to represent India in International Olympics due to societal pressures of “settling down” with a stable source of income and getting married. However, Mahavir deeply regrets having done so and dreams of winning a gold medal for the country by his future male heir. For this purpose, he wants a male child.

When his wife is pregnant with their first child, we see that he yearns for a baby boy to be born as he paces up and down during labour. However, when he learns that a daughter is born to him, he is visibly upset. The second time his wife is pregnant with a child, Mahavir and his wife use a couple of remedies and methods recommended to them by prying villagers for the birth of a son. However, again a daughter is born to them, and he seems deeply upset as “misfortune” overtakes him and his family. That’s when he makes a comment to his wife, “Bura mat maan na, lekin mujhe jou sapna poora karna hai woh ek beta hee kar sakta hai”. Mahavir is clearly trying to apologise for sounding like a sexist misogynist yet at the same time he shows no signs of happiness fathering daughters. Even the sweets that the villagers have brought in expectation of the birth of a male child are not distributed among the people, indicating that there is no celebration at the birth of a daughter. Instead, everyone seems visibly disappointed. While such a mindset is prevalent in many lower-middle households in India, highlighting this mindset via these events is a little disappointing for a film that was directly challenging gender inequality and gender roles. These events in the film clearly show that the birth of a son was to be celebrated and there were aims, ambitions and respect that were assumed to be pre-given to the child by society and family. However, the birth of a girl was met with disappointment and called a “misfortune”, and girls have to constantly prove their worth in order to be treated with the same respect and dignity time and again. What does a male child have to do to receive all of that? Simply be born.

Moreover, while the film attempts to make a strong feminist statement, it actually undermines ideas of females having a sense of agency and ownership in what they do and how they choose to live. As the daughters grow up, they happen to beat up two young boys who attempt to bully them. Mahavir sees his daughters have a natural knack for combat and views this as an opportunity to fulfill his dream of winning a gold medal for his country by training his daughters to become female wrestlers and compete in national games. While the girls do have a fruitful journey and eventually become the first ever female wrestlers to win internationally and represent India in the Olympics, it is actually not their own dream but rather their father’s dreams and obsessive ambition that is enforced upon them. The girls had no inner will or dreams of becoming professional wrestlers (rather they come to hate their father during early adolescence for giving them a hard time during training) but are forced into it to fulfill their father’s dream of doing the larger good by winning gold for India. In this way, the film actually renders the girls as docile puppets that are in the hands of the father, who is the patriarch of the family. The girls are used instrumentally to help Mahavir fulfill his unachieved dream of winning an international gold medal. The father also has emotional ways of making them conform to his dream, perhaps not for the sake of making them strong and independent women, but for winning the gold for India. This also makes it more of a nationalist ambition of a patriarch. It does not matter what the girls’ dreams, ambitions and hopes are for the future; they are disregarded for those of their father.

Additionally, it is problematic that the film constantly shows that in order to be taken seriously, the girls have to look “like a man” as well. In early adolescence Mahavir has his daughters’ hair cut short, wear boyish clothes (pants and t-shirts), wear no makeup or jewellery. It furthers the idea that being too “feminine” is a sign of weakness and can be a distraction from achieving goals or success. Moreover, the fact that it is all against their own will is just another example of how the film depicts that there is absolutely no sense of agency or autonomy for the girls. Nor is female empowerment promoted. Instead, the female wrestlers are seen honing celebrated masculine traits and the film makes it seem that it is one of the reasons for their ultimate success. What is worse is that all this is channelized through the patriarch of their family.

In the second half of the film, we see Geeta choosing to grow her hair and apply nail polish while she trains for international games at the camp, away from her father. These decisions are obviously against the will of her father. Instead of celebrating it, the film’s script decides to punish Geeta for this. What is a rather harmless display of independence and free thinking leads her to a series of losses and failed fights in the ring. It is as if Geeta is not allowed to exercise autonomy of any sort without being reprimanded. What’s more problematic is that by the end of the film she’s seen asking for her father’s forgiveness and mercy for this act, and it is only then that her career gets back on track. This is a way of elevating the patriarch of the family, giving in to making him the ultimate savior.

Ultimately, both Geeta and her younger sister Babita win big; Geeta bags the first ever gold medal for India in the female wrestling category at the Commonwealth games in 2010, Babita qualifies to international games. Geeta proudly wears the gold medal around her neck, however it’s not just her victory. It’s her father’s. While yes, Mahavir was instrumental to both his daughters’ success, the film tends to suggest that he was the sole reason for it, which is to disregard Geeta’s own blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices that she makes for her victory in her game.

In all, Dangal is a good and inspiring, moving watch that forces its audience to rethink social roles for females in India and puts spotlight on female excellence in sports. However, when read between the lines, the film is not a very careful or well thought-out piece on female empowerment and falls short on truly challenging gender inequality or representing females in India. Perhaps if the film were written or directed by a female, the story would have reflected the girls’ lives, thoughts and stories with more honesty and greater accuracy. What do you think?

Let me know in the comments below!

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