Rahul's blog: Dangal ke baad Mangal
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25 December 2016

Spoilers ahead. And there’s really no point reading this if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

This is as much a pondering about a perplexing debate as it is a blog about Aamir Khan’s latest film Dangal. That debate being the right way to coach and handle exceptional natural talent… especially when spotted at a very young age. There’s been a raging argument going on about Aamir Khan’s Mahavir Singh Phogat in a WhatsApp group of friends. A journalist friend of mine called the character a disturbingly dictatorial dad and humanising him being the biggest problem with the film. Another critic has apparently referred to the character as a madman.

Many films have explored this debate and many more have at least touched upon it fleetingly. Whiplash, Goodwill Hunting, Little Man Tate, Budhia Singh etc are for some reason those that come readily to my mind at this moment. Some like Goodwill Hunting and Little Man Tate optimistically summarise that such people should be left alone to decide for themselves. Many sports films glorify the sacrifices and eulogise the resultant triumph. Few like Whiplash take a very close look at the scars of those that talents that breakdown.

Is it right to push a talent really really hard, put them through inhuman training regimes, force them to make sacrifices, rob them of a decent social life to make them achieve their potential? Especially when it comes to children? They didn’t sign up for it. Most kids don’t even know if that’s the career they want to pursue at such a young age? And when you start out you don’t even know if these kids have the mental make up required to become champions. All those sacrifices could end up utterly futile.

Well, then why force your kids to go to school? Many kids I know hate textbooks. I did. A parent would shoot back that education will help them make something of themselves when they become adults. I agree. But then isn’t this the same? The only difference being such parents and coaches are focusing on one specific career path. Heck, training for any sport, music or even to become an actor doesn’t require you to put in as many hours as you need to sit in school. It’s torture for some kids. Especially those that get poor grades. They are forced to do it anyway. Am not taking sides here. Just asking questions.

Now onto to the next angle in this debate. Must the training be this punishing and heartless? Is there a right way of doing it? Must it be so brutal? Good question.. and there’s probably no clear answer. But yes, the more brutal the training, better the chances of producing a champion. Sounds heartless, yes. But let’s try and understand the difference between talent and ability to better tackle that question.

I can play a good looking straight drive with copybook technique. I’ve always been able to since the day I picked up a cricket bat. It’s a natural talent I have. Sachin Tendulkar clearly has that natural talent too. But he can play a good looking straight drive in a Test Match in front of 50,000 screaming fans on an overcast day on a wildly seaming track off Allan Donald with a new ball. I can’t. That’s ability. And that ability cannot be developed without pushing and pushing and pushing a child to spend thousands of painful, muscle numbing hours to polish that talent.

A man named Richard Williams decided by himself without consulting his daughters that they were prodigies. He proceeded to put his daughters through rigorous training routines at an absurdly young age. He once remarked in a now famous interview that his daughters will be world number 1 in a few years. Venus and Serena didn’t just become world number 1s and win more Grand Slams than cars in the Wimbledon parking lot… they also revolutionised women’s Tennis. They unleashed a brand of Tennis that forced their contemporaries to cope and coaches around the world to rethink the skill sets their wards required. Women’s Tennis today is significantly more hard hitting, fast paced and exciting to watch than it’s been in any other generation in history. One Mister Sharapov did something similar with his precociously talented daughter Maria.

Now here’s the other side of the argument. For every Sharapova and Willams, there are scores of kids who break under the pressure, are emotionally scarred permanently, hate their families and the world in general and become bitter adults who fail… sometimes just to rebel. It’s a terrible tragedy. Even with the success stories.. one could ask if a Serena wanted to revolutionise Tennis, if she’d rather have her childhood back than stack up Venus Rosewater Dishes.

Why must a child suffer through its wonder years so that it may enthral the world as adults by obliterating the limits of what the human body, voice or mind etc can do.

My own wife, a celebrated singer, tells me she’d sometimes hate singing as a child because of the number of hours she’d be forced to do it. But those hours made her who she is. She’d tell me that she still sometimes regrets not having a normal childhood. But she doesn’t regret one bit the ability she has today. She takes joy in being able to express herself through her singing like very few can. Incidentally, Chinmayi has sung the Tamil and Telugu versions of Gilehriyaan from Dangal.

And here’s the other side of the coin. My younger brother had an exceptional natural talent for cricket. He could bat majestically, had every shot in the book, could bowl leg spin, could bowl fast.. really fast if he was in the mood and was a superb fielder. My dad spotted it early and signed him up for coaching. After a point he didn’t like the rigours or the pressure. He had lost his love for the sport the minute he was forced to play it competitively. My father being the flawless father he is, did probably the right thing and let him quit. I still wonder what he could have been had he continued. I sometimes regret that my dad didn’t whip my behind and force me to play any sport seriously. But I loved him then for taking it easy on us and will always for being a wonderful, kind father.

But when it’s a dad like Mahavir Singh Phogat… It’s a difficult debate. If it all works out in the end and the child becomes thankful for it as an adult… fantastic. I know for sure that most children wouldn’t voluntarily sign up for hard work. They have to be pushed. And if that pushing permanently damages the psyche of a child it’s a disaster.

But you cannot know which way it will end unless you start early and see it through. Again… there’s just no right answer.

Let’s now talk about Dangal and Aamir Khan’s Phogat in this context.. and tangentially.

In this specific case, Phogat had a tough task on his hands. It wasn’t just about how to handle his daughters. This was a three pronged problem. On one hand he had to battle all the conditioning that his daughters had been subjected to up until the day he decided to start training them. They had been brought up like how ‘girls’ are brought up. Given dolls and mini kitchen sets to play with, chided when they did things that ‘boys’ do, and mentally fed what their purpose was as ‘girls.’ Years of all this conditioning had softened them physically and in spirit. They weren’t capable of a mentality required in a physical sport like wrestling… let alone the physical ability required. It takes a certain mentality to go at an opponent with every ounce of strength in every muscle. Many ‘boys’ aren’t capable of it. These girls had been raised to avoid it. Their upbringing had made them dheela in spirit and in body. He had to undo this first.

Secondly, he had to deal with the fact that his daughters didn’t want to do it. And hated him for forcing them. He had to fail as a dad, fail where my father didn’t fail his sons, to succeed as a coach. Which father wants to be hated by his children? But he had to harden himself emotionally. In a lovely scene in the film, he massages his daughters’ feet after they’ve fallen deep asleep from the day’s exertions. He feels bad for what they are being put through. But he can show them that affection only when they are asleep. They must not see the tenderness he has in his heart for them. For they must hate him… for it will toughen them, for it will undo some of the conditioning, for he must fail as a father.. to succeed as a coach. It’s true. If you are going to be a heartless Phogat and not a Ravindran, it’s the way to do it.

Of all the heartless things he does to his daughters, one particular act stood out. The scene starts out innocuously as one meant to elicit a few giggles in the audience. The one where he decides to chop off their hair after they complain of all the mud making their hair dirty and beyond unentangling. He concedes that it’s a practical problem and to their horror summons a barber. When the girls realise he means to go through with it they start to wail and plead with him not to. The scene suddenly changed the tone of the film itself. Girls at school have already been mocking their changing gait and this will ensure they become the town freaks everyone will make fun of. The wailing of two young girls ripped through the giggles in the theatre. A deathly hush fell amongst the audience watching the film. I could sense the changing vibe around the darkened hall. Phogat had crossed a point of no return and the crowd didn’t care that it was their beloved Aamir playing Phogat. That was long forgotten. Much thanks to how unparalleled Aamir is in Bollywood when it comes to getting into a character and never stepping out. I could sense a contempt filling the hall for Phogat. It was the scene when a comic stretch of a strict dad troubling his hapless girls crossed over to intense drama territory. The audience suddenly had a clear villain and heroines in their head. It was no more dad and daughters. The director and the writers absolutely ace the tonal shift and maintain it expertly from there. None of us watching even consciously realised. But the job had been done. There was going to be drama now and the way had been paved.

Let’s just pause the scene a bit. The girls scream in plea, the heartbroken mother can’t bear to see it through her uncontrollable tears, even the barber trembles with guilt and hesitation at what he’s being asked to do. The audience in the theatre falls into an uncomfortable collective silence. And then Aamir does something only a brilliant, perceptive master actor like him can do. He asks the barber to do it.. and he does so as flatly and without any fuss as possible. It was sensational acting that is bound to go unnoticed because it is meant to.

The characters in the film, and indeed most in the audience watching are appalled. But we must ask ourselves… is it not because of our own sexist prejudice? Would the mother or the barber or most of us in the audience watching be as repulsed by Aamir’s Phogat if he was chopping of the hair of a boy who had grown it like the old Dhoni hairdo? If the boy had wailed and begged his dad not to because he loves his locks? Heck we would have probably been giggling at the boy’s comic helplessness. Aamir’s Phogat is the only one involved who doesn’t see them as ‘girls’ but just as athletes. Is it prescribed by science that girls must absolutely grow out their hair? Are there any medical benefits in doing so? It’s all but centuries of conditioning that long, lustrous hair makes a woman ‘beautiful’ and ‘desirable.’ A balding young man can and does find brides. Just imagine a balding girl.

As far as Aamir is concerned they are athletes and long hair is an inconvenience. No fuss. Chop chop.

Might sound like am reading too much into it. But the Geeta’s hair becomes a tool to represent her state of mind later again in the film. When she seeks the ‘girl’ in her and shuns her focus as an athlete momentarily. And yet again when she rediscovers her drive. She grows it out to get a taste of what it feels like to live the life of a girl as prescribed by the world. And chops it off herself when she realises she wants rediscover the determined athlete she’s been forced to live like, but this time voluntarily. Now am not saying every girl should go chop off her hair to assert her feminism. That’s ridiculous. Am just saying a girl ought to do what she wants to do. That’s all.

Let’s come back to the three pronged problem Phogat faces and discuss the third. He has to fight sexist prejudice in his village amongst friends and family. He was after all making his daughters run around in ‘nickers’ shamelessly and trying to make wrestlers out of them. And this a couple of decades back. There was certainly going to be reactions. The girls were going be harassed, taunted, teased and made the butt of jokes wherever they turned. There was going to be no escape. And as discussed, chopping of their hair made things infinitely worse. He will have to wage a war against everyone to protect his daughters. So what does Phogat do?

He doesn’t wage a war at all. He sidesteps it. He cruelly, heartlessly lets his children fight that war themselves… unassisted. Their childhood is robbed off them but he doesn’t bat an eyelid. He loves them dearly but has the conviction to make what must have been a hard choice for him. He lets them deal with it so that they harden up. So that they fill up with rage. So that every bit of their dheela spirit is replaced without trace by indignation. So that this rage can then be funnelled into controlled aggression in a bout. They must after all take on ‘boys’ because there are not enough ‘girls’ who can give them a good fight and much needed practice.

It’s cruel… almost criminal, what he did to his daughters. But it worked. Geeta and Babita Phogat won almost 30 international medals for India. Geeta became the first Indian Woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. They blazed a trail that inspired many young girls in Haryana. One such girl, Sakshi Malik, won us one of our only two medals at the Rio Olympics this year. Another girl in the family, Vinesh Phogat, is a medal hopeful for the next Olympics. All this happened because Mahavir Singh Phogat failed as father and succeeded as a coach. He waged a war on his own daughters. And let them wage a war against the world as children.

Was it cruel on the girls? It would have been had they not become the champions they did or if they had become emotionally scarred adults despite becoming champions.

But in this specific case… Geeta and Babita did become champions, glorious examples for other girls and brave trailblazers. One look at their Twitter bios and you’d know they are proud wrestlers and very grateful daughters who love their father dearly. In this specific case… there certainly was Mangal after all the Dangal.

PS: I absolutely loved the film. Great acting by everyone in the cast, technically brilliant and a 100 goosebumps a minute:) And the wrestling sequences were exhilarating and unbelievably authentic!

PSS: Aamir Khan I worship you Thank you for being a colossus, thank you for always taking it upon yourself to improve the quality of Indian mainstream cinema. We love you dearly.

PSSS: If you thought I was kidding you about my straight drive…


- Rahul Ravindran (Andala Rakshasi, Ala Ela and Tiger)

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