Dangal and the Owning of the Female Body

In a world where women are simply handed down their limits to be followed in every sphere of life, Dangal kicks at conventions through pure act, through the sheer body of the female.

Geeta wrestling in <em>Dangal</em>.

Geeta wrestling in Dangal.

Spoiler Alert

An amateur wrestler, Mahavir, is looking for a son to fulfil his dream of winning an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. But despite performing the rituals suggested by their neighbourhood for begetting a son, he and his wife end up having four daughters. The despondent father wakes up to his daughters’ possibilities when he finds them giving a neighbourhood boy a good thrashing for calling them names. From the way the two girls enact before him their fine tactics against the bullies, the father realises his daughters possess skills. Mahavir makes up his mind to train his young, school-going daughters, into wrestlers. The story finds an echo in Nitin Tendulkar’s discovery of his younger brother’s propensity for bullying and assaulting students at school. That is how, in 1984, Sachin got introduced to cricket through Nitin’s historic decision to channelise and harness his younger brother’s energies into the more creative realm of sports.

But there is a radically different challenge when girls/women enter a sporting arena in a social space where only boys/men play the game, and they alone call the shots. Of course, Mahavir encounters difficulties even before he introduces his girls to the professional wrestling arena. The running, the tough exercises and the initiation into the hard sport, all during the wee hours of dawn, take their toll on the girls. They fall asleep during class and their bodies ache at night. The girls react to the sudden enormity of physical hardships their father throws them into, deciding to finally confront him with their problems. When the girls express their reservations about the sport, they are making an excuse as much as making a genuine confession of difficulty. On the verge of their concerns being dismissed by Mahavir, Geeta, the elder daughter, brings up the crucial issue of their hair getting dirty, even catching lice, from their daily practice in the mud.

The problem is presented by the two girls as a commonsensical concern involving hygiene as well as the gendered convention of girls keeping long hair. Mahavir’s decision to cut off their hair raises an interesting complication. On the one hand, he disregards the convention of long hair associated with feminine identity, breaking an important social norm. But on the other, he creates no space of persuasion by taking the decision on his own, forcing his will upon his daughters’. The act of the scissor cutting off the girls’ hair appears violent. But it also depends on what exactly is violent here. There are many kinds of violence crisscrossing each other in this case. The natural sense of agency the girls possess is complicated by their adherence to the gendered notion of long hair. There can be no argument of liberating the girls forcibly. That would be ironical. But due to the strange predicaments of history, it is also true that the act of having their hair cut off releases the girls into a new, unfamiliar world of possibilities. The girls are locked within the conventional image of femininity that has reflected in the mirror of generations.

It is impossible to break that mirror without a symbolic act of violence. In Dangal, the shattering of the image occurs through a male figure’s arbitrary intervention. While Mahavir cannot be accused of serving the cause of patriarchy that fundamentally works under the logic of exclusion and gendering norms, his decision to cut off his daughters’ hair nevertheless falls into the traditional problem of patriarchy working as moral authority. A stark historical contrast to Mahavir’s act is Gandhi’s. Gandhi had cut off with his own hands the hair of the two girls who were teased by a young man in Tolstoy Farm. By Gandhi’s own admission, he wanted to “sterilise the sinner’s eye” by making “the two girls [have] some sign on their person” that would ward off male attention. It was a violent move to desexualise the image of the girls in order to ward off the male gaze. The female body is seen as the site where sexual desire operates. Gandhi found it logical to forcibly alter that body to control the flow of male desire.

Gandhi’s response was most insidiously patriarchal, where he finds it appropriate to make the girls sacrifice their hair as a means to recover their “purity” in the sexual realm. Mahavir’s intentions are, however, utilitarian. He is only interested in removing all hurdles to the girls learning wrestling. On the other hand, Mahavir is progressive. He believes in an inclusive, equal and fluid world of gender relations, particularly in the realm of sports. When his wife expresses her anxiety about the girls’ marriage prospects, Mahavir brushes off her fears by proudly asserting that their daughters will have the freedom to choose their own groom and not remain tied to the conventional roles of the household, thus inverting norms.

Geeta and her younger sister, Babita, eventually come to learn of the new world their authoritarian father was opening up for them when they attend the wedding of their friend. After Mahavir creates a scene, objecting to the girls dancing in the wedding in full feminine glory, the bride tearfully tells Geeta and Babita how despite their father’s strict ways, he treats them – and values them – as individuals, whereas her own parents have bartered her life away to other people. The girls realise their father’s intentions of enabling them with a sense of ownership and freedom through the sport they were playing. In a world of no-choices for women – their bodies working purely under sexual and sacrificial economies of oppression – Geeta and Babita realised their good fortune. Wrestling no longer appeared a torture, disabling them from finding their destiny.

This confidence rubs off on the girls, exemplified by Geeta cutting off her own hair herself later, after she is tempted to explore the lures of the other side of being female. It is an act of reclaiming her athlete’s body. The singular discipline and madness of sport is no different from any other work of art and creativity where dedication, as much as regulation, is part of self-growth. The disciplined body produces energies that enhance the skills of the practitioner. Though the aesthetics of the disciplined body in sports extends to other realms as well, the figure of the rival is respected – unlike the rival of the disciplined soldier who induces violence. In the sublime world of sports that aims at fairness and mimics the idea of violent battle, the rival is not the enemy.

When Geeta takes on the local boys in her first wrestling bout, she makes history by being the first girl to enter the arena meant strictly for males. The male audience gleefully sexualises her despite its discomfort with her presence and waits for her quick defeat to reestablish gender difference and raw male power. Geeta’s participation in the bout is meant to retain and reinforce the masculine imbalance. But as the balance shifts and Geeta overpowers the boys, Mahavir’s original script no longer remains the same: It is no longer her daughter becoming the son, the female body showing off her excellent male skills, the woman proving to be as good as a man. From the reaction of the audience itself one can visually feel Geeta introducing a fundamental sense of ‘difference’ in the very imagination of wrestling ­– difference defined by a non-masculine presence in a masculine arena. Mahavir’s script goes out of his hand and visibly becomes Geeta’s own from that moment.

The moment not only overturns gender norms, but also the idea of power. Power in wrestling, as Mahavir knows well, comes from technique, skill, the ability to read and respond to the weaknesses of the opponent. It can transform the female body into an equal opponent, competing with the male. Geeta introduces equality through difference, for she brings into the game a very different process of negotiating with the demands made on her body. Her subjective transformation where she reluctantly learns to inhabit the body of a sportswoman faces way more hurdles than any boy of her age. But in the arena, all that the audience  can see is a multiple force that overcomes the opponent. Geeta owns her body and the arena at one go.

Much later, when Geeta in her new found arrogance of being trained by a national coach in the sports academy, questions her father’s techniques, he challenges her to a bout. It is the most memorable moment in the film, pulsating with many meanings. Father fights daughter but they don’t fight as father and daughter. They fight as two players fight, competing for supremacy, seeped in a sudden sense of rivalry. Both are out to prove a point to the other. Only we as the audience are aware of them being father and daughter as they transform into wrestlers. Not only gender differences but also the hierarchical relation between them, withdraw into the background. The father does not play to prove his physical prowess but pride in his technique, which the daughter challenges. It is a touching as well as exhilarating moment where the daughter announces her rift with parental power by proving herself to be a notch above expectations.

The sporting body is about limits as much as breaking them. In a world where women are simply handed down their limits to be followed in every sphere of life, Dangal kicks at conventions through pure act, through the sheer body of the female. It breaks the idea of the female body as a sign that signifies anything in relation to the male. Geeta and Babita’s bodies are singularly attached to what they can do in the arena where bodies transform into craft. They begin to own the body in the middle of a tussle, breaking boundaries of gender, where power no longer rests in the hands (or legs) of a body that is superior by sex but technique alone. Geeta and Babita are part of the national imagination strictly through a (local) point of difference. The challenge of growing up unconventionally in Haryana where female foeticide and infanticide are sickeningly high, grants them a unique toughness and sense of achievement. The nation may watch and celebrate their success as much as they would rejoice in it, but the relationship ends there. Dangal’s perfect sportsperson comes up against all possible odds – despite all that is wrong with the nation, especially its gender relations.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. He has recently contributed to Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin, 2016). He is currently adjunct professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.

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  • Jay Dee

    Excellent article. And I’m thrilled to see the film start and negotiate such conversations. Watching the girls compete and beat their opponents was exhilarating.

    As someone who was hyper conscious of her body, growing up in India in the 80s, I asserted my willfulness in abstaining from sports. I know many girls do that to themselves. We become our own worst critics and self-harm in a billion psychosomatic ways. Sports is the perfect disrupter to this systemic damage. Now I realize that the discipline and ownership of sports is critical to giving women power over their bodies. As more and more women enter and dominate sports they are setting a fine example for girls that come after them. Hats off to Mahavir Singh Phogat and his one-track mind in making champions.

    But as the film points out women need institutional backing to sustain such powerhouses of talent. More women in sports will bring the necessary spotlight to funding, training and sponsorships. The US has Title IX policies which were slow but much needed to boost female sportsmanship. But Title IX still has a long way to go—men’s sports still dominate in funding and endorsements. And male athletes keep getting away with rape and sexual assault on US college campuses.

    We need more Mahavir Singh Phogats and we need more women at policy levels who can prioritize female sportsmanship. I hope the Geetas, Babitas, Sanias, PV Siddhus, Sainas, Dipas of India can flex their political muscles and make some serious noise about institutional and systemic backing of female sports and training. Sports give us ownership of our bodies back to us. Sports may well be the perfect disrupter of child marriages, sexual assault and harassment, and domestic violence.