The Feminism of Dangal

As late as I was on the scene, I watched Dangal last night. Possibly the last movie of 2016 that I will watch in a theatre (barring a miracle that results in me making it for an unearthly-timed afternoon show of La La Land), and definitely the first one of 2017. And what a way to ring in the new year it was!
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I have enjoyed several movies that came out last year, and strongly believe that Bollywood is evolving and how. As we live and learn, movies that we 90s kids swooned at and swore by seem increasingly cringeworthy in respect of their treatment of female characters, even the purportedly stronger ones (think Simran and Anjali). Movies of today, on the other hand, are decidedly making progress in the right direction. And while Bollywood stars and starlets still avoid the F word like the plague, the moviemakers are definitely getting more and more feminist in their fresh brand of storytelling.
At a time like this, when mainstream art and culture are still evolving, I fear we do a huge disservice to the cause with acerbic op-eds nitpicking minor aspects on which, in our opinion, the artists daring to lead this movement, failed. This is not to say that higher standards must not be aspired to. This is just to say that this new species of storytellers must be respected and acknowledged for the gumption it takes to make art that is socially accepted and commercially viable without pandering to the follies of our legacy.
To me, Dangal is a shining example of what we need right now from cinema on three critical accounts: it is, one, essentially a feminist story told in a way that, two, makes it popular among the masses and, three, makes money for its producers. A movie that pleases every purist among us but is watched by few others is pointless. A movie that is a commercial blockbuster but reinforces the misogyny of the masses is a bhai flick.
Two girls, born in a rural household in a State infamous for its misogyny, are disappointments to their family even before they take their first breath. If their journey to becoming the pride of their nation on an international platform is not a feminist story, I don’t know what is.
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So what if the dream was their father’s to begin with? Worse outcomes have come out of parental pressure than international gold medalists. Which, by the way, is not an outcome possible without the next generation growing to own the dream whole-heartedly as their own. Offer this supposed liberation from their father’s dream to Geeta and Babita Phogat and I’d be willing to bet a 5-pointer at their hands they won’t be pleased.
So what if the word ‘nation’ appeared in the vision of Mahavir Phogat for his daughters? I am eternally perplexed by the notion that feminism and nationalism are divorced concepts. If a woman fights in the army for her nation out of her own choice, isn’t that a feminist?
Who decided that the feminism of someone who graduates from being destined to be a child bride and expected to be a boy-popping machine, to becoming an international sportswoman in track pants, is second in class to that of a business suit clad marketing executive or a skirt wearing videographer?
I am not one for extremism in any garb – be it nationalism or anti-nationalism – and I am all for the Phogat women and their father, who led the way for many more girls of Haryana to dare to imagine a future beyond traditional roles slapped on their fate by society. The first to tread a new path are the ones who face the most challenges.
“Idhar tauji apni duty kar rahe thhe, udhar gaon vaale apni.” 
We urban folks who think we’re sick of the ‘log kya kahenge’ syndrome ain’t seen nothing yet. Not until we experience the intrusiveness of life in a rural community. It takes a village, they say, to raise a child. In rural India, it literally is the village that acts like a family raising a child. And then, like all families, feels entitled to an opinion on how these children go on to live their lives. Mahavir Phogat must have faced all the hushed and loud criticism shown in the movie, of the way he was raising his daughters.
For standing up to that criticism (or even, for sometimes ignoring it), Mahavir Phogat is a feminist. For not succumbing to societal pressure on his journey of incubating his daughters’ talent, he is a feminist. For facing all the challenges that come with being ‘different’ in any society at any time, Geeta and Babita are feminists. For, after having choosen their father’s dream willing as their own as adults, working tirelessly towards it with such dedication against all odds, Geeta and Babita are feminists. For not giving up in the face of setbacks in an environment characterized by general apathy towards sports in general, and sportswomen in particular, the Phogats are feminists.
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Theirs was a story worth being told. And for telling that story in a way that earned the story a mass appeal and set the PayTM registers ringing at the box office, Dangal, to me, is not only the best, but also the most feminist movie of 2016.
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