Dangal has captured the imagination of an average middle-class Indian. Yes! It is a fantastic movie. Yes! There should be positive reviews of the movie. Obviously, both critiquing and praising. It is indeed a good movie which has a lot to say about contemporary Indian social reality. Unlike the social media proclamations of Dangal, what fascinated me is the sheer implicit message in the movie about today’s predicament. It is no coincidence that the notion like “post-truth” has entered the vocabulary of politics – with simultaneous rise of Trump like figure into power – Dangal is here to point out the logic of this politics at the level of cinematic discourse. There is definitely something telling to this renewed socio-political configuration and simultaneous reworking of our notions regarding art, politics, literature, philosophy, etc. in these changed circumstances. Dangal is a pointer to that kind of a political development.
Dangal with a very simple approach testifies to this changed reality. A socio-political reality where everyone and anyone are free to become anything one wants within the given arrangement of things. The movie very spectacularly reveals how there is a shift from the idea of freedom of oneself to explore not independently of, but by getting subsumed in the very society’s or nation’s agenda. Like the way today’s world is subsumed into the ideological universe of the “triumph of Liberal democracy” in the academic slogans like that of “End of History”. More particularly, we are told that the invincible and indomitable reality of capitalism is going to remain eternally as the ultimate order of things, represented by liberal democracy within which one is to exercise their “choice”. Individual is no more the bearer of one’s independent self, but the harbinger of the idea of “development of the nation” within and inside the logic of global capitalism.
Dangal shows this very beautifully where Geeta is that individual committed to fulfil the nation’s seduction for “glory” and “victory”. Comparatively, Dangal has captured this reality more accurately than movies like Matrix. In Matrix, for example, through the use of dystopia the audiences are taught to choose their goals. This they have beautifully done in its famous allegorical scene of the choice between the “blue and the red pill”, just like the way we do under democratic regimes after every five years. Dangal has done justice in entrapping the shift from choice based regimes/nations/society to increasingly individualized embodiment of all of these entities.
Let’s say, in the old days of a newly independent country like India, an individual was only a fragment of the nation or society. Individual was just an entity within the nation/country/regime with total and coercive control. Now, Dangal explains to us that it has been reversed in today’s contemporary Neoliberal world. Close to the idea of a “digitized nation” with “good governance without government” as the mantra, now, the nation/society/regime are no more the big entities like the way it did at least a couple of decades ago. The nation speaks, fashions, speaks, acts, and, last but not the least, thinks through an individual. This ideological churning as some kind of a weltanschauung (world view), governs our lives in contemporary times. Tragically, this state of affairs is more dangerous than the yester years because it controls without exerting power and most importantly in the name of “development as freedom”. Today, if there is a defiance to this kind of ideological homogenization, then immediately the “nation” would “want to know” whether the individuals are already an embodiment of the nation/society or not. Societal institutions like big governments will not dictate you to toe their lines; rather, individuals in themselves are the readymade microcosm of the nation/society.
Dangal: The Movie
This is the logic of today’s predicament which Dangal very interestingly brings to the fore. Geeta is the embodiment of the nation itself. There is no nation/society in abstraction anymore in Dangal, that its why it is not nationalist in the way we understood yesterday. It s nationalist is many different ways. The movie shows individual is the manifestation of nation. It has done this by substantiating from a real-life story in the form of a biopic of Geeta and Babita with Mahavir Singh Pohgat (wrestlers) as live testimony to this reality. You are being moulded only to win a GOLD MEDAL for the NATION. A direct comparision can be made of the “truth” that even a chaiwala can become the prime minister of India. This ideological fascination in the movie is a direct impression of our social-political reality.
A categorization and essentialization of Dangal as pro-feminist or ‘patriarchal’ or ‘nationalist’ or ‘modernist’ etc. would be no less than an error. Rather it would not be incorrect to say that the movie characterizes all of these notions and none at all at the same time. It is an exception to the influences of the brands like David Lynch’s ‘Vertigo’ or ‘Blue Velvet’ etc. teaching you to see through the patriarchal male gaze, machismo, or ego. Neither with the adventurist Quintin Tarantino’s all time favourites – “Django Unchained”, “Jackie Brown”, or “Kill Bill” etc. Nor is Dangal presenting a pathetic defence of traditional patriarchal values and traditional cultures as you find in Kapoors and Karan Johar type movies.
Unlike all of these traditional cinemas, which in many explicit ways propagated and reinforced dominant values of the society, Dangal is opposite of them all. Amir Khan has distinguished himself from all of these trends. It brings into fore the real essence of contemporary society. Let me make this point by taking some of the main instances from the movie. Dangal has one very strong notion which runs throughout the film which one can create parallels and make connections to the ideological notions new powerful regimes uphold. Like Modi, Trump, and the new wave of rightwing assertions throughout the globe. We will try and make connections specifically to the Indian context, more precisely the Modi and the ideological fabric BJP has woven in recent years. (Definite shift in the ideological moorings of Hindutva politics have taken place from that of the 1990s and early 2000s to the one we have right now.)
The running theme of the movie is its notion of the “self”, “us”, or a figure of an “Insider”, linked with this is the idea of purity of this self. The cinema has invested largely to create this fervour in great many ways. Amir Khan’s character is the protagonist and the emblem of this ‘insider’ and the facilitator of this inside world and the eyes and ears of this purity. Secondly, in the whole movie I can identify four levels or phases in the journey of this ‘self’, encoded mainly in the making of the character of Geeta. That is the linear development of the personality of Geeta from her childhood to ultimately her becoming international champion.
The Teleological Journey of Geeta
First journey of Geeta is from her childhood (wrestle) training up to her entry into the National Sports Academy (NSA). This is an important journey; as half of the movie is invested in showing this development of Geeta under her father’s guidance. Geeta is a pure ideological subject, groomed under the insider’s (that is, her father’s) world. She grew under her father enriched with a state of purity. A perfect creation of a subject under the aegis of the Big Other; i.e. the father figure. Geeta in this first journey is nothing but a subjective extension of Mahavir Singh Pohgat.
The second level or journey of Geeta is after her qualification at the National level and her entry into the NSA. Here, she undergoes certain changes. Away from home and her father, she explores herself, gets rid of the bondage of purity her father had imposed on to her, she changes her tactics of her game in the “aakhada” reflected even in her way of life. Geeta unlearns her old self in many ways, does away with what had been taught by her father even to the extent of challenging those. She in many ways experiments with the processes of creating her independent self – for example she grows her hair, subtly flirts with her male counterparts in the academy, polishes colours on to her nails, etc. This journey is very insignificantly portrayed in the movie, but I was finding this section more interesting part in the whole cinema which the film makers comfortably avoid engaging with.
Third journey of Geeta starts after she is defeated in the international championships. The subtle message is that she deviated from her original self; she adopted and explored new ways of tactics EXTERNAL/foreign to her, that is the reason to her constant defeat! The implicit message is that she undergoes a self-realization that she has to go back to her father’s virtues. A realization, that her tactics is incomplete without her father’s guidance. She in herself has to stick to this authentic self, within and INSIDE of the radius of this notion of original self of Geeta. The cost of going out will be defeat!
The fourth and final journey is the one of victory. In this phase, for Geeta, victory and self-preservation is only possible by going back to her original self. This is a journey back to her original self and an authentic ‘self’. What the movie interestingly shows is the self-realization and a formation of a consciousness in Geeta to go back to the original self, but with a qualification, that she is a self-regulated and qualitatively more self-dependent from the initial Geeta nurtured under the aegis of Father.
Right-wing Ideological Narratives
If anything this whole journey has resemblance with is that of the logic given by the new wave of emerging right wing discourses and ideological justifications globally in contemporary times. The important segment one can refer to in Dangal is the last journey of Geeta back to her original, authentic, and pure self. Dangal represents that blueprint of the new ‘post-truth’ discourse set by the rightwing political formations. Let us take dominant discourse and the ideological edifice of today’s ruling classes. The trope is not very different from what is being said in Dangal. Let us say that Geeta is symbolic of our society. We are being told that this society had certain level of “purity”, “originality”, in its “ancient” days.
The rightwing communal and Islamophobic imagination of Muslims as the precursor of this danger and vehicle of impurity fits well. It is said that a certain level of distortion and corruption due to these foreigners had affected this “originality” and “purity” of the society leading up to its corruption and crisis. These crises are therefore triggered by “foreigners” (read Muslims and religious minorities) who distorted ‘our composite culture’. This narrative points towards the external factors as essential dangers and threat to this society and its culture. This threat is to its women from the barbaric external men capable of “alluring” these innocent women. This rhetoric is popularly referred to as “love jihad” in today’s context.
In political terms, this “foreigner” could be a substituted by anyone not just Muslims. It could be different characters at various contexts. Replaceable with the figure of “illegal migrants” in Europe, Muslims in India and dangerously, even progressive political ideologies like Feminism or Marxism can easily fit within this rubric of the external other or the figure of “foreigner” etc. This works as the best politico-ideological tool to lampoon and extinguish any political opposition and perceived threat to power centres providing further justification to bulldoze their whims on the whole of society.
Then enters the third segment in this trope — that as a civilization this society undergoes a crisis, owing to the external distortions and influences — where corruption creeps in the interiors of the social body similar to the defeat of Geeta in the international arenas. Similar to the imagination of Geeta deviating from her father’s teachings and her experiments with new way of life and tactics etc, the rightwing narrative tells us that our society also underwent the influence and control of external foreign rulers at a particular juncture of our history breaking away from its “glorious past”. This external danger or threat can be anyone, in the Indian context, the Muslim invaders followed by the long drawn British colonial rule, and in the post-independent era the dynastic-corrupt-foreigner Congress party. This scheme of things does not rule out the influences of western ideologies and ways of life. One gets a hint here what Anna Hazare’s “Anticorruption” movement was preaching in 2010, of which Modi’s regime is the direct outcome.
The fourth edifice, of this ideological manoeuvre is the emphasis on going back to the authentic roots as a solution to all of these social evils. The political mobilization typical of today in favour of rightwing politics happens by seducing people to this notion of “originality” and “purity” associated with it which is “under danger” today – think of the brahmanical discourses on Vedic age as the “golden era” and their emphasis on turning the wheels of history backwards. This narrative maintains that Indian society can be liberated only by going back to its ‘golden culture’, its original self, by gaining the purity back again which was polluted by the foreigner rule and leading up to its crisis. Most of the dominant discourses in Indian politics and society are more or less in line with these tropes and narratives. But the question is whether there is an alternative for Geeta as society apart from her returning back to the original, authentic, pure self?
We think there is, and this is where the pessimism of the film Dangal stands subject to criticism. The movie seems to preach that there is solution only within this existing framework. My question is why shall the individuals or group in society be the mouthpiece and embodiment of the nation/society/regimes? The problem with today’s ideological consensus, Dangal being one of its representatives, is that, you can think about nation/society, and talk about the emancipation of individuals only within it. But all other things which do not fall within those parameters are a taboo.
The rationale of today’s politics is very much similar to what John F. Kennedy said – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Similar to those in power authorizing people to rally behind the so-called “demonetization” at all cost in recent times. Dangal might have done better than what it has, but maybe it is the times we are living in that has shaped a lot in the film. Then, the correct answer to the question as to what one can do for his/her country as posed by Kennedy is only by defeating and escaping the rightwing ideological logic. Like the way the students movement and the oppressed people of this country are trying to doing today!
Chepal Sherpa, PhD research scholar, CPS/SSS, in JNU New Delhi. He is associated with the left students movement and a member of Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organization (BASO) recently formed in JNU. Writes on various political and social issues in different journals and platforms.