Monday, 6 March 2017

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison tracks down the recent Hindi mega hit DANGAL

No one would take seriously a movie enthusiast who hadn’t heard of Paul Newman or Michel Piccoli but try them on Aamir Kahn, the star and moving force behind at least two of the most significant films of the twenty first century.

I first noticed him as the Ice Candy Man in Deepa Mehta’s 1998 Earth which is already a quarter of a century into his acting career. The film which cemented him into position was  2001’s  Lagaan directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the most substantial entry in the sudden burst of Bollywood which occurred at that point.  He showed up in a few more like Farhan Akht’s Dil Chata Hai/Hearts Desire also 2001, part shot in Sydney, Ketan Mehta’s 2005 Mangal Pandey where he was submerged in character make up and Rajkumar Hirani’s immensely popular 2009 Three Idiots, among the productions that made him one of the leading figures in what is edging on for the world’s largest movie business.

However the film that put him front and center again was Rajkumar Hirani’s 2014 P.K. where our man turns up as a spaceman who gets involved in possibly the most remarkable preachment against religious intolerance the movies have produced. This should have been the subject of centre spreads and TV news items worldwide. The fact that it wasn’t is not a little disturbing.

Now Aamir Kahn is back again in another monster hit movie, Dangal directed by Mitesh Tiwari. A 151 minute Indian inspirational sports movie, and all that that implies, is a bit inhibiting. However this one over-rides reservations. It’s not a chore, it’s massively satisfying viewing.

Aamir Khan, Dangal
Lots of spoilers follow - Aamir is the one time provincial wrestling champion whose home wall is covered with his old trophies. He dreams of his son taking his place but despite all the advice on charms and diet from the villagers, his wife produces four daughters, dashing his hopes. The trophies go back into the trunk.

However, he comes home to find the neighbours complaining about their sons being bruised and battered. It’s not his nephew but his daughters who thrashed them. Our hero gets the message and starts training the pair - montage of bridge runs and pulling the roller. He gives them a last taste of spicy food, oil or alcohol and introduces chicken into the vegetarian diet and, when they complain about bugs in their hair from rolling on the ground, shaves their heads. Rebelling against the 5.00 am training regime, the two girls monkey with Aamir’s alarm clock and skip their work out to go to their fourteen year old cousin’s wedding - half musical sequence complete with painted hands and costumed dancers.

At this point we get the clincher scene where the film pulls away from the competition and the bride hears their complaints and expresses jealousy over their lives as sports women being more than baby making and domestic drudgery.

They are first refused by the local all male sports carnival but one organiser asks how about using the girl as a crowd puller - like a lion fighting an elephant. Young Wasim picks out the meanest looking kid to fight and decks him. Her career is underway.

Nice scene where Amir draws the concentric circles that the pros use in big time all female wrestling and gives a run through of the rules with the younger kids holding up score paddles.

Grown to be Fatima Sana Shaikh, number one daughter becomes area champion and goes off to the National Sports Center to train for the Commonwealth Games, with coach Girish Kulkarni sending Aamir on his way. Shaikh grows her hair back, paints her nails, watches Sha Rukh Kahn movies and draws the attention of boys. Dropping by the village she dismisses the methods Aamir used to train her and their confrontation becomes (another set piece) a wrestling match between the young fit champion and her aging paunchy dad. -  striking shot of her leaving, focus pulling to him watching from the balcony above.

Shaikh has a losing streak with the coach busting her down from 55 kg. to 51 kg. events where she is sure to run up the medals tally he wants. However younger daughter Sanya Malhotra puts through a ‘phone reconciliation with Aamir who moves to the big city and starts coaching Shaikh though refused entry to the Patiala Sports centre. Is official coach Kulkarni ever ticked off. 

Dad keeps her in the heavy weight division, saying that only Olympic gold will bring glory to India. Even when he’s banned from the area he gets the library match tapes and takes over a shop front video theatrette to study them - with the proprietor making him an offer for what he is sure must be illegal imports.

Shaikh’s victories set her up for the Olympics - cut to the illuminated arena fireworks and mass marches. Aaami shouts advice from ringside and the dastardly coach, failing to get him thrown out, has him locked in a store room during the big match with the mean (white) girl wrestler. Aamir, unable to smash out of the equipment store, only knows what is happening in the arena when he hears them play the Indian National anthem above.

‘Scope technical work is superior. Khan’s aging is strikingly effective but just to re-assure his fans there’s a Bollywood number with the end credits, where he’s still got his moves.

The emphasis and detail are constantly at odds with what we anticipate. The differences between this and Fences or Million Dollar Baby are a symphony in cultural dissonance and not the least interesting element. The girls get no romantic action and mum and the other daughters are marginal in this film about feminine empowerment which is part of a major government drive. Intriguing to compare this with Chinese efforts like the Fang Xiaogang Si Ren Ding Zhi/Personal Tailor which is also trying to get across the official line as a major entertainment.

Leave that to a thesis writer and just enjoy this one. Child brides and women wrestlers - what’s not to like?  Your local spice store is a more likely source than festivals and SBS which are traditionally light on in their Aamir Kahn content. The discs currently circulating are passable picture quality and so-so English sub-titled.

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