Wrestling drama beats Bollywood box-office records

Aamir Khan put on nearly 30kg for his part in Dangal.
Aamir Khan put on nearly 30kg for his part in Dangal.PHOTO: YOUTUBE.COM

LONDON • Dangal, a film about two female wrestlers helmed by Indian megastar Aamir Khan, has become the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time, earning 3.45 billion rupees (S$72.7 million) in three weeks.

Directed by Nitesh Tiwari, the movie is based on the true story of wrestling champions Geeta and Babita Phogat, sisters who achieved firsts for Indian wrestling at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Dangal is a Hindi word used to describe a wrestling competition.

Geeta won a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and in 2012 was the first Indian female wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. Her sister topped the podium at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Khan, 51, plays their father and coach Mahavir Singh Phogat, who had hoped for sons he could turn into world-class grapplers, but sees the promise in his young daughters after they thrash two local boys who insult them.

The girls are initially reluctant, but change their minds when they see the alternative for young women in the village: an early marriage and a lifetime of child-rearing and domestic labour.

The film's box-office returns surpassed 3.45 billion rupees at the weekend, according to the industry website Bollywood Hungama, putting its earnings above the 2014 science fiction movie PK - another Khan film.

"It's a marvellous thing that it has done so well because it's not a traditional Bollywood film," said Anupama Chopra, a film critic and author of several books on the industry.

"There's no love story and it's about very strong women. There are no gorgeous young people romancing each other in Switzerland. The only traditionally sellable element is Aamir Khan and he plays a much older overweight man - and yet it becomes the biggest hit in Indian cinema."

She said the film's success "tells you that audiences have evolved, and not just in the urban centres".

"It gives a sense of how viewers are feeling about the difficult conversation that's being had about women in India in recent years."

It also reflects Khan's storytelling instincts: "He has the best gut in the business," she said.

For some scenes in Dangal his gut was also the largest: Khan put on nearly 30kg for the part, which he quickly had to lose to play a younger version of the character in flashback scenes.

Tickets for Dangal were made tax-free in four states as part of the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign, which aims to reduce female infanticide.

The gender disparity is worst in the Northern Indian state of Haryana, where 830 girls are born for every 1,000 boys.

The film has kicked off a debate among Indians about its feminist credentials, many lauding the celebration of women in a male-dominated sport, others questioning why the sisters' father is the focus of the story.

"The script erases the girls and constantly credits (Mahavir Phogat) for braving the taunts of conservative neighbours," a review in the Hindustan Times said.

"This is unfortunate because in reality, the young women would likely have been the target of a bulk of the disparaging comments and could only have carried on with extreme courage."

It is the second Bollywood film to tackle feminist themes after September's Pink, a courtroom drama that examines India's attitudes towards consent and the growing freedom of Indian women to dress, work and live as they choose.

Dangal was released on Dec 23 and was India's second hit wrestling film of 2016. Sultan, starring Salman Khan, was released in July and made 3.15 billion rupees, sitting third on the all-time grossing list.

The Phogat sisters' success paved the way for other Indian athletes, including Sakshi Malik, another wrestler from Haryana who won a bronze medal at last year's Rio Olympics - India's first Olympic medal in the sport.

The two sisters are still wrestling, forming part of a team called UP Dangal in India's pro-wrestling League.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Wrestling drama beats Bollywood box-office records'. Subscribe