Recently, on a short trip to China where I was once posted as a diplomat, I was flattered when a Chinese friend asked for my autograph. To think that my Daily Times articles were now being read in China! However, my ego was soon deflated. My friend explained that his wife was so impressed by the movie Dangal that she wanted my autograph because I had the same name as the talented mega-star.
Intrigued, I went to a local theatre and managed to buy a ticket. I say “managed” because most products and services in China are now bought through QR code swiping. Naturally I was curious why a movie about wrestling would earn rave reviews and go on to becoming one of the highest-grossing movies in China.
I was blown away by the movie. Not that I do not like Aamir Khan the star. I loved Fanaa (2006). Kajol’s world-class acting had brought out the best in Aamir Khan’s craft. The kitchen scene haunts me still. And Aamir Khan’s micro-second lasting facial expressions in the last scene when he overcomes his primordial rage to shoot his wife is perhaps one of the finest acting displays in movie history. But then I was also disappointed by the jejune Three Idiots, PK and Talaash.
Dangal is spell-binding. The performance of the two young girl-actors in the first half is astounding. Aamir Khan, as always, delivers a poignant display of his prodigious talent. The positioning of the movie, aimed at empowering young girls, is impeccable. But it was, as always, emotional anchoring that persuaded me to award the movie four and a half stars.
Emotional anchoring? Just watch the disturbingly intense phone call scene between the estranged father and his defiant daughter. Of course, the greatest scenes in movie history are often without talk. Cue the iconic scene in Lamhe when the young, feisty but heart-broken Sridevi gives up on an emotionally unresponsive Anil Kapoor to fly back to India. Recall the last scenes of Babul and K3G. Conversely, recall the intricate workings of Inception, which is all mind and no heart. Aamir Khan, reluctant to talk to his daughter who has lacerated him to the very core, breaks down on hearing the anguished sobs of a defeated wrestler. Or watch the distressingly perfect wrestling scene between father and daughter. It will make you wince.
But why did the Chinese fall in love with this movie? Firstly, no country in the world is more sensitive, even obsessed about the achievement of its children than China. The gaokao or university entrance examinations are a case in point. Mothers actually take their offspring to nearby hotels so that the child does not have to travel. They even block adjoining roads so that horn-noise does not distract the examinees. No amount of funds is enough and no level of effort is satisfactory to prepare these children for the future. The movie catches this collective nerve perfectly.
For Chinese viewers, even the slim-fat Aamir Khan reflects control over one’s body. That this is achieved through sheer hard discipline is both magical and achievable. Like China’s own success
At the same time, many Chinese children are being spoilt by the 4-2-1 syndrome. This refers to four grandparents, two parents and one grandchild — the latter has neither siblings nor first cousins. All six parents and grandparents spend money to pamper the “little emperors”. Thus when Aamir Khan cuts his daughters’ hair so that they can fight better, or makes them run for miles, this fits perfectly into the Chinese parental mental grooves. Fed up with Korean soaps, featuring feminized males with long nails, plucked eye-brows and rose-petal lips, Chinese parents have taken their children in droves to Dangal not only to motivate them but also to shame them.
Then, the movie itself is a metaphor for China. Like the future champions but now-penurious village girls who cannot afford to eat even chicken, China has overcome incredible odds to rise from poverty in 1978 to become a politically-stable economic juggernaut that is proud to assume international leadership. Dangal is China itself. No sky is high enough for the Chinese spirit. For Chinese viewers, even the slim-fat Aamir Khan reflects control over one’s body, achieved through sheer hard discipline is both magical and achievable. Like China’s own success.
The movie is ultimately about a father’s unrealized dreams fulfilled by his progeny, male or female. I can relate to it. My father passed away not long after I watched the movie. Only then did I truly realize what he had done for me. I also learnt, exactly like Aamir Khan’s daughter in the movie, that no matter how hard you try, you cannot outgrow your father. Your father writes your destiny, as Shilpa Shetty’s father so peremptorily put it to hapless Sunil Shetty in yet another all-time favourite of mine, Dharkan.
Aamir Khan’s Dangal is a paean to all the fathers in the world.
The writer obtained a First in French literature from Oxford. He writes for the Daily Times