Is Dangal a feminist film?

Before watching this film, I had received mixed reviews. Some said it was a feminist film about two young women overcoming the patriarchy to become professional wrestlers. Some, like Buzzfeed India, said it was about a dominating father pushing his unfulfilled, nationalistic dreams onto his daughters. I went into the cinema with a critical mind.

The beginning made me really uncomfortable. From Mahavir’s (played by Aamir Khan) longing for a son and disappointment when he gets four daughters instead, to the complete lack of agency from his girls and wife about his decision to start training his two eldest.

Girls outnumber boys by a tonne on both sides of my family, so I couldn’t relate to this obsession with having a son. I was initially thinking – how exactly is this a feminist film?

But as the movie goes on, I began to see the wisdom in his ways and my respect for him as a father grew.

The film is set in 1980s Haryana, a state with one of India’s highest rates of female foeticide. One of the daughter’s friends in this film was getting married at the age of 14.

It is within this context that Mahavir is determined to see his girls win Olympic gold. He knows they have the talent for it and does everything he can to make it happen. He makes them wear t-shirts and shorts instead of a salwar kameez and cuts their hair short. This makes the girls upset and subjects the family to criticism from their entire village. But to him, strict gender roles and behaviour doesn’t matter. He could not care less when people said girls shouldn’t behave like that. Instead, he enters them in a competition to compete against boys, and they smash it.

It all began when he recognised the fight and drive they had within them when they beat up a boy for teasing them. By training them, he then showed them that as girls, you need to stand up for yourself. Do not bother what other people say, particularly about your ‘place’. He’s tough on them, but only because he doesn’t see why girls should be treated any softer than boys.

To me, Mahavir is a feminist father. He shows fathers, particularly from deeply patriarchal communities that sons and daughters don’t need to be treated differently. Children should have equal expectations and behaviour standards placed on them for us to even begin to achieve gender equality.

It is a shame however, that we don’t see many Bollywood films where boys are taught a lesson or two. An example being to respect a girl’s choice to turn you down. That is what I’d like to see.

But I still think this film is a step forward for Bollywood. In a part of India where girls were getting married at 14, he was training his daughters for what is arguably one of the manliest sports there is. He challenges them to LITERALLY fight against a world where girls are taught that their only worth is in the kitchen. And even though it was his dream to begin with, he ended up channelling that dream into a fight against a patriarchal system that said his daughters weren’t good enough.

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