CultureCinema A Feminist Reading Of Dangal

A Feminist Reading Of Dangal

In Dangal, nationalism takes over feminism and women's agency gets lost in the name of "women's empowerment".

I had been eagerly waiting for the release of Dangal like for all the other Aamir Khan movies. It is inspired by a real life story of Mahavir Singh Phogat who was a National Level Wrestler but could not compete at the international level due to family’s pressure of finding a “real” job. The movie encapsulates the emotional relationship between the father-daughter and despite all the hardships that he has to face from the society, he manages to train his daughters to compete for the national and international level wrestling competitions.

Dangal (2016)

Cast: Aamir Khan as Mahavir Singh Phogat; Sakshi Tanwar as Mahavir Singh’s wife; Fatima Sana Shaikh as Geeta Phogat; Sanya Malhotra as Babita Phogat; Zaira Wasim as young Geeta; Suhani Bhatnagar as young Babita.

Director: Nitesh Tiwari

The movie begins by showing how Mahavir Singh could not compete for Olympics because he succumbed to the societal pressure of “settling” down with a job that was a source of stable income and got married to have a “normal” family life. However, he always regrets doing so and hence wanted a male child in order to fulfill that dream of winning a gold medal for the country. This is where a feminist lens is crucial to examine the prescribed gender roles and association of wrestling with “masculinity“.

When his wife is pregnant with their first child, he paces up and down and yearns for the news to be in affirmation of a boy child. However, when he learns that a daughter is born to him, he is upset. For the second time when they are trying to conceive a child, everybody in the village gives them fool proof methods of conceiving a male child. During the time of his wife’s delivery, everyone gathers around with a box of sweets to take “credit” for enlightening them with the methods with which it was possible to give birth to a baby boy. “Misfortune” overtakes and the second time too a girl child is born to him. He is again deeply upset and the little detail of not distributing the sweets among the people shows how there is no notion of “celebration” when a girl child is born.

However, he does not want to sound like a sexist misogynist, that’s why he tells his wife, “Bura mat maan na, lekin mujhe jo sapna poora karna hai, woh beta hi kar paawe hai.” This is one statement that touched me deeply because I come from a fairly liberal and privileged background where women are “educated” and the birth of a girl child is not frowned upon as in other families but still, I have often heard my relatives and family friends say this to one another on birth of a girl child, “Ek Ladka toh hona chahiye. Property kya damaad (son- in- law) ko doge?” 

Despite of the Indian law which has given property rights to women, yet asking for a share in father’s property is seen as being a “greedy” woman, in case she has brothers. In case where she is the only heir to the property, it is assumed that it is her husband who would take over the property.

Moving on to the movie, Sakshi Tanwar (Mahavir’s wife) becomes pregnant two more times in the hope of bearing a son but it so happens that each and every time they become parents to a girl child. This makes Mahavir Singh give up on the hope of having a son whom he could train for competing for wrestling matches and getting a gold medal for India at the Olympics.

Their daily, mundane lives go on till one day there are two young boys who are beaten up by Mahavir’s daughters – Geeta and Babita. It is then that he gets the insight of training them for the “larger” good of winning a gold medal for India at the Olympics. We can see one thing very clearly here like in our daily lives – the birth of a boy is celebrated and there are certain aims and ambitions that are assumed to be pre-given by the society and the family for them. However, we as girls have to constantly prove our worth in order to be treated with same respect and dignity time and again. This becomes more visible in the scene where Geeta and Babita return from their friend’s mehandi ceremony (mind you, the friend is just 14 years old) and are constantly grumbling of how hard they have to train in order to become a wrestler and they miss leading a “normal” girl’s life. It is then that their friend makes them realize how fortunate they are to have a father like Mahavir who paid attention to his children; otherwise usually parents got their young girls married off as soon as they hit puberty.

That’s my bone of contention; why are girls made to feel that giving them their “basic human rights” is a privilege? It is then that both Geeta and Babita realize how “privileged” they are and now want to take up wrestling seriously so that they are not married off at a young age. These two young girls would have been truly empowered if they had myriad choices to choose from as to what course should their lives take, but the narrative and depiction of the movie makes it seem less like a choice – where there is no scope of these girls exercising their own “agency”.

Their father has emotional ways of making them conform to his dream of raising his daughters to be wrestlers, not for the sake of making their daughters strong, bold and independent women, but for winning the gold medal for India.

The lyrics of this song goes somewhat like this – “Tujhse behtar toh Hindi filmon ke khalnayak hain.” The language of the songs becomes crucial to analyse in order to understand how Geeta and Babita perceive their father in their childhood since they had no inner will to become professional wrestlers but are coerced into it to fulfill their father’s dream of the “larger” good.

Also, this cinematographic depiction presents that in order to be taken seriously one needs to look “like a man” too (like short hair, no jewelry, no make up etc.) Being too “feminine” is seen as a sign of weakness and also distraction from achieving the ultimate goal. In the scene where Geeta returns home from the Patiala Academy of Wrestling and has regrown her hair (Mahavir got Geeta and Babita’s hair chopped off previously); her father is quite unhappy with that sight and says to her in utter disappointment – “Tu bahot badal gayi hai.” 

Also, unlike in other movies like Sultan and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag where these two sportsmen were shown to have love interests in the movie, there is no such depiction about Geeta and Babita perhaps because their “desires” are suppressed in the name of distraction. It makes me wonder… “Can women have it all?” Outrageously flourishing career, a great loving and supportive family which recognizes her ambition and respects her individuality and does not expect her to be the sole rear-er of children and glorifying the role of a housewife who works from morning till the night and yet she does no “work”, all in the name of tit-bits token of love and appreciation.

It is in this background that Mahavir’s wife becomes worried as to how they will find a suitable groom for both these girls who are becoming so “manly” themselves. To this Mahavir replies, “Chinta mat kariyo; main apni ladkiyon ko itna kabil banaoonga ki woh ladke dekhne jaawengi.” Does this statement make it any better to not reinforce the gendered notions of power and superiority? What he means to say is there will be a role reversal when it comes to familial ties for these two girls since they are “manly” enough to be independent and care for themselves.

Towards one of the ending scenes where Geeta is nervous about competing for the Commonwealth Games against an opponent who had already defeated her twice in the earlier competitions; Mahavir advises his daughter as a mentor, coach and a father (most importantly) to give her best shot and to aim for the gold medal because it is only that way that she can become a role model for other girls in our country who feel humiliated and uncomfortable to be associated with a sport such as wrestling. It was in this scene that I reflected on the importance of having role models for young girls to follow in order to break away from the gendered notions of what a woman can or can not do. If we do not have anyone to represent us and our population; then at times we might give into the internalized notions of what is “normal” for a girl to do and what are the roles that we are “unfit” for as deemed by the society.

Just like Pink, Dangal ends up being a film about a patriarch at the helm who “empowers” women and obviously takes all the accolades.

In conclusion, I would like to wrap up by saying that it is overall a good movie to watch however as Namrata Joshi writes in her review in The Hindu,

 There are chinks in the feminist armour which, to give the film its due, it doesn’t aim to hide but wish it had explored the dilemmas and complexities more than eventually brushing things under the easy nationalistic carpet and justifying everything with “nation before the individual” logic.

Also, how can one forget to mention that a supposedly empowering film for women has “exclusive shows for women” as well.

Image Credits: The Quint

And did you for a moment think why is that the case? Well, Let us see how many show timings are allotted to the “exclusive women shows”.

Image Credits: The Quint

Umm, needless to say why that only afternoon show is reserved for women. Is it because women have no work to do, no office, school, university or other engagements? Or is it only targeted at homemakers? Even if it is, why can’t homemakers go for “exclusive women shows” in the evening? Of course, we shouldn’t be stepping out post eight in the night. You see, everyone is concerned about our “safety”. What empowerment are they talking about? We still can’t claim access to public spaces without having the fear of being harassed or feeling unsafe.

Bollywood is just a reflection of the patriarchal society that we live in; but cinematographic representation of gender roles, father-daughter relationship, the gender neutral language that does not subordinate women is extremely important as it can be a medium through which it can make the audience reflect on these issues. This is one area where this movie disappoints. It could have molded into a narrative where it was empowering for women but it fails to do so.

Specially after seeing “exclusive shows for women” on Book My Show; I’m quite skeptical if they understand the meaning of empowerment.


  1. nilesh says:

    A father is a guide and a teacher, and a subject is as interesting as its teacher! If the teacher only knows wrestling he will teach that only, right? Making your daughter strong is a duty of every father, father may have erred but he must have seen some potential in girls, otherwise you think just anybody can excel in any sport? Method of nurturing natural talent and flair is different in different circumstances, you think the hero would have been any less strict to his ward if he had a baby boy?Which father doesn’t dreams for his kids?
    In your overzealous criticism I see some valid points, however, please don’t get me wrong, you tell me name of a sport that doesn’t demand strict discipline? Long hairs in wrestling will always be a hurdle and will provide easy opening to your opponents. About make up, I would just like to say what animal in this entire world adopts to it apart from humans? There are several matriarchal animals where the female dominates males, bees/fishes etc. do they resort to adorning bodies? A peacock grows feathers to attract peahen, but wait, it often dies due to them(either they get entangled in bushes or hunters hunt them for it). The overall answer is a big no as far as adorning body with external things is concerned in animal world, it is only the male dominated human society forcing women to look beautiful wasting their productive time! Why the onus to look beautiful lies with women? For a mother her kids are always beautiful, does she needs to apply cosmetics in order to love her kid? What can be bigger irony than the female starting to love this bondage? Make up/cosmetics is a sign that you are not happy with body you were born with, why not just be a human being and love your body as made by your creator/god? Chemical laden cosmetics are creating havoc on female skin, nail polish is entering in our food chain & poisoning it, tell me a single reason why a sane minded person would love it?
    Sometime it is necessary to go wrong to correct a mistake being committed by millenniums,generations after generations.

  2. English Maan says:

    I believe many of the arguments made in this article about the film are wrong and taints a good film trying to express a positive message. Addressing the contention regarding how they “gave away” their basic human rights, is incorrect because Mahavir just trains them in a legal way(i.e. he doesn’t abuse them, malnourishes them) so as a parental guardian he completes his requirements. Sure, he may not have given them a choice to participate in profession they enjoy, but that doesn’t make him sexist as he would have coached the same way if he had sons instead of daughters. Moving on to the point about how he wanted make them look less “feminine” when wrestling, cutting one’s hair is procedure for wrestling. In fact long hair can get pulled in the close-contact sport of wrestling. In addition, Mahavir did not want them to buy jewelry and such because he wanted them to solely focus on wrestling, which is why he is angered when he sees the girls at the wedding. As for the argument about romance, I truly believe that a romance in the movie would have taken away from the message the movie was trying to send and morph the movie into a cliche sports movie. In short, the scrutiny given to this movie is a bit undeserving because of the reasons stated above.

    • elisioned says:

      The problem is that the film was publicized by the makers (including Aamir) as a story of women empowerment, which it was not. It was the story of coaching and obedience, which it narrated well.

  3. n says:

    So, you want exclusive shows all day?

    • peace says:

      No. We do not want exclusive shows at all Sherlock. We want a safe and liberal environment ALL DAY AND NIGHT.

  4. Overrated says:

    In terms of women power Rudhramadevi is faaaaar better than dangal vo to dangal mein aamir khan tha isliye usey itna overrated kiya gaya

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