Saturday, 7 January 2017

Dangal (2016) - Movie Review

New year, new film selection, same old asshole taking time out to look at them; yep, it’s beginning to feel a lot like 2017 around here. New year’s resolutions are have devolved into single-sentence punchlines with how often they end up just discarded, but around here, I’m putting one in place to make more of an effort to see more foreign films. Given the selection at my local haunts, this shouldn’t be much of an issue, but I’m going to be spending a bit of time in January looking at a few films that I just didn’t manage to catch last year. So, in finding a meeting point between the two, let’s look at this Bollywood film. This is Dangal.

The plot: Former wrestler Mahavir (Aamir Khan), after trying and failing to have a son with which to carry on his dream of representing India in the field of professional wrestling, trains his daughters Geeta (Zaira Wasim/Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar/Sanya Malhotra) to be wrestlers. In the midst of the town believing that wrestling is no place for women, Geeta and Babita end up making it all the way to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. However, as the competition heats up, it seems that Mahavir and Geeta’s mentor-protégé relationship is about to take a sharp turn.

The cast here is pretty good, something helped by how there’s actually an actor here that I recognize. After seeing Khan do a tremendous job a few years back with PK, it’s definitely good seeing him here not only performing well, but in a way that shows real range for the guy. He sells the wrestling scenes and montages really well, and he handles the character’s rampant ego remarkably well. Sakshi Tanwar as Mahavir’s wife is good for contrasting against her husband, but doesn’t stand out that much on her own, Ritwik Sahore and Apatshakti Khurana as Mahavir’s nephew are alright as the rather hapless goof they’ve been saddled with, and the actresses playing the wrestlers are… strange. I say strange because I think this might be the first time when the child actors manage to outdo their older counterparts in the same role.

Malhotra is okay, if sidelined for a lot of the film, but Bhatnagar makes for a great companion for Wasim and the two do very well with their scenes. As for Wasim herself, good God, let this kid have more work in Bollywood because she is without a doubt the best actor here. The way she just exudes this air of 'don’t mess with me' as her wrestling training continues, as well as absolutely selling the anguish during the early steps of said training, she somehow manages to outclass Aamir Khan who is already giving a seriously good performance, given his character. In comparison to this, Shaikh is decent but not exactly comparable.

This is a more restrained form of Bollywood musical, where the songs have thematic importance but don’t stop the film dead just to perform them. In that fashion, they’re pretty good when they’re used and make for some nice wrestling intro tunes. Yeah, it’s Greco-Roman wrestling and not WWE kayfabe fare, but that comparison still applies with how blood-pumping these songs can get. The title song alone sets up a good backdrop for some intricate wrestling action. It also serves some nice comedic ends as well, with the nicely exaggerated lyrics put into Haanikaarak Bapu which embodies the “why are you doing this to us?!” air of the early training stages.

As a sports movie, it’s honestly pretty damn good. Framed against one man’s ego and drive to prove something to himself and his country, the first half makes for some decent moments where Mahavir’s daughters are put through the wringer as he trains them. Set against a pro-feminist backdrop and some rather poignant (if loud) perspectives on gender roles and who should be allowed to do what, it gives the rather tropey events that take place have some good dramatic weight to it.

Go to the second half and that starts to falter. Suddenly, the feminist overtones start to fade away once other female wrestlers enter the picture, and Indian female wrestlers at that, but that is more of a footnote compared to an even bigger problem. This film is based on the true story of Geeta Phogat, India’s first gold medallist for women’s wrestling, but you certainly wouldn’t guess that from how it’s presented here. Instead, it’s shown more as Mahavir’s story where whatever development he gets is done in conduit through Geeta and to a lesser extent Babita. There’s something kind of worrying about making a film about an inspirational female icon and making it all about the father; kind of makes the not-so-subtle jabs at sexism a bit hypocritical in hindsight.

All in all, as much as the mishandled feminist undertones end up harming a fair bit of the overall film, this is still a decent sports movie and in keeping with Disney’s recent live-action biographical work. The acting is fairly good, in some cases astounding, the music flows nicely with the action on screen, the action and wrestling scenes are well choreographed and while the writing does falter the closer to the end we get, it stills gives a good enough set-up to make the victories and defeats have real dramatic impact. That said, it is definitely held back by how this film about an inspirational female icon is much more about her father than herself.

1 comment:

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