Aamir Khan, the star of Dangal, is as formidable and celebrated a movie star as India has going. Two years ago, he played the lead character in PK, a sci-fi comedy about an alien who visits earth and points out everything wrong with it; the film went on to become the top-grossing movie in Bollywood history.
It’s based on the true story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler who lived for the proud dream of seeing his country take home athletic gold. (It sounds like he’s talking about the Olympics, but he means any international competition.) Due to a lack of government sports funding, Mahavir wasn’t able to go for the gold himself (he became an office worker). So he took his two eldest daughters, Geeta and Babita, and turned them into competitive wrestlers, cutting against the grain of what Indian society wanted and expected girls to be.
In Dangal, is Mahavir a domineering stage father, using his kids to live out his failed dreams? No doubt. That’s why he prays to have sons. But when God blesses him with daughters, he transfers his obsession with molding a champion right onto them; as a coach, he’s both a domineering egotist and a de facto feminist. If the movie has a theme, it’s that Mahavir is a patriarchal thinker forced, by circumstance, to move into the 21st century. He’s a lot like India itself.
Dangal culminates in a championship bout at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, and Tiwari stages it well. Geeta has to face down an Australian wrestler with a raw-boned look to kill, and as much as any boxing drama, the movie makes you feel the human ferocity in both of them. To raise the stakes, Mahavir isn’t even there; a foe has literally locked him in an office. Geeta, to be true to her father’s dream, must do it on her own. There’s hardly a moment in Dangal that doesn’t go according to the numbers, but after 160 minutes’ worth of formula, the movie certainly hits a note of touching tribute to the way girl power is sweeping the world.