Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why I Have Nothing to Say About Dangal

I more than enjoyed Dangal: it was fantastically well-made, uniformly well-acted, and pulled off the difficult feat of making wrestling interesting, even deeply engrossing – that’s creditable, when you consider that most sports movies rely on the built-in appeal of sports that are already popular, with great cultural resonance.  Heck, to even make a sports film – i.e. a film in one of the most hackneyed genres – half decent, let alone excellent, is pretty darn impressive.

And yet, when I (more than once, and over a period of a few months) sat down to write a review of Dangal, I found I had nothing to say. Which might make this piece nothing more than a narcissistic exercise in my writer’s block, but I’d like to believe there’s more going on here.  The “nothing” is symptomatic of a wider issue, namely that Dangal is a very impressive film – just not a very interesting one.  Is that a high bar?  Certainly – after all, no-one asks whether Chennai Express, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, and Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge are interesting films (the likes of Karan Johar insist on treating movies like Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil as examples of interesting cinema, but that sort of move testifies not only to Johar’s mediocrity, but to a rather transparent attempt to account for under-performance at the box office) – but not unreasonably so: in terms of commercial cinema, Aamir Khan has set a relatively high standard over the last fifteen years, and has reaped many rewards for his efforts.  Dangal, though, crystallizes a trend in Aamir Khan’s recent work, one that runs through 3 Idiots and PK (but not through Ghajini or Talaash): it panders to its audience, i.e. it tells us viewers what we already believe about the world, and does so in order to make us feel good about ourselves. 

It’s that last bit that should give us pause: Dangal’s pandering isn’t problematic because it gives us what we want (that is banal, in the sense that it is true of most mainstream movies), it’s problematic because the film demands that it be taken seriously, and then rewards that engagement by telling us we – the “we” who have filed in to watch this film – have nothing to worry about, we have been on the right side of history all along.  What is, after all, the “message” of Dangal?  That girls and women are just as good as men?  But who could disagree with that?  Or, more to the point, while there are millions who might disagree with that, as even a casual look at India’s socio-economic data on gender and disadvantage will show, who among Dangal’s audience would disagree with a proposition framed in that fashion?  And that is very much the fashion in which the film presents the proposition, with Aamir’s Mahavir Phogat leading his daughters Geeta and Babita (fantastically played by Zaira Wasim/Fatima Sana Shaikh (Geeta) and Suhani Bhatnagar/Saniya Malhotra (Babita)) into terrain traditionally off-limits to women: the world of wrestling, and in the Jat communities of Haryana to boot.  The father is repeatedly told (including by how own wife) that wrestling isn’t for girls, and he refuses to take received wisdom as a given, ultimately getting his way.  Nothing should be off-limits simply because one is female.

Self-evidently true, but it’s that “simply because” that trips me up: it’s where so much discrimination, so much exclusion lurks in disguise, and enables bigots and discriminators to watch this film with a clean conscience.  This matters because, in today’s day and age, sexism and other forms of discrimination do not announce themselves as such (just about everyone recognizes that a certain opprobrium, a social cost, attaches to open displays of hatred, it’s almost a marker that one is un-civilized), but as something else.  Today, the misogynist hastens to assure us he doesn’t have anything against women, “but…”; the racist insists he doesn’t hate African-Americans, but in fact it’s whites who bear the brunt of racism in America; Yogi Adityanath heaps vitriol against Muslims, but resists any implication that he is anti-Muslim, or even that he has any problem with pluralism (he wishes to offer us “true” pluralism, secularism, etc.).  That is, if the hallmark of nineteenth- and twentieth-century –isms was essentialism (e.g. the openly expressed view that biological differences between men and women meant that each had certain spheres of activity proper to them; or that different races were scientifically demonstrated to be superior/inferior to others), the truth of our own times is the lie: a hatred that dares not speak its name, and dares a great deal as long as its name is not uttered.

For Dangal, the above means that the audience never has to face any uncomfortable questions about its own sexism, or to reckon with misogyny of a more subtle kind – everyone can get on board this party program, and the happy ending means we don’t need to worry about what isn’t on the menu.  It’s the classic problem with a pop culture Raavan: if there’s a villain out there somewhere and he can be killed, you don’t need to worry about the more complicated demons within (an inversion of Javed Akhtar’s memorable lines from the Swades Ramleela song come to mind, the words “…dekh taj ke paap Raavan Ram tere mann mein hai” pointing to a more complicated, more suggestive link).  There’s nothing mean or contemptible about that truth, but it is important to remember that is the truth of the super-hero comic, and as such it is no more than a pleasant diversion.  In Dangal, the world is divided between the benighted – those who think women can’t do what women haven’t done for ages – and the enlightened, and the film leaves no doubt it thinks the audience is among the enlightened (indeed the structure of the film as a sports-film makes this explicit: by movie’s end we are all rooting for the female athletes, and hence for the virtuous cause they and their father stand for).  From this perspective Bajrangi Bhaijan was far more interesting: consider the myriad scenes in which rather everyday examples of communalism are represented, scenes (set around, for instance, dietary practices) that evoke uncomfortable recognition (displaced by some clever humor, allowing the viewer to engage with the communalized texture of his reality, but not denied) – in Dangal, the analogous scenes create a distance between viewer and character: it’s not “we” who are sexist, not like those Haryanvi rural Jats, shocking really, what goes on there.

Dangal’s filmmakers are doubtless aware that even in the film’s target audience, women’s wrestling might be a bridge too far for some, so it deploys a second lever: nationalism.  At every point, Mahavir’s and the film’s feminism is powered by nationalism, a one-two punch that makes Dangal more about the latter than the former: feminism and women’s empowerment is not an end in itself, but (this is a sports film, after all) something that will win the nation medals and glory.  As a reflexive fan of the Indian cricket team, I’ve got no problem with sports-patriotism – but I do have issues with setting that up as a goal so worthy even women’s empowerment may be used to further it.  Stated differently, Dangal’s double move is to accept as a given that most of us will be rooting for Geeta and Babita as they make their way in the world of wrestling (under, I might add, the leadership of their father; the film unsubtly makes the point: when Geeta forgets his path, she must contend with athletic failure) – but those who don’t must reckon with the politically uncomfortable truth that they are impediments to the nation’s progress. 

(As an aside, this is of course an old trope, a common defensive or nationalist response to the colonial gaze: when purdah was seen as a symbol of Eastern backwardness, “native” modernizers hastened to insist that “their” women should discard it; when the absence of a European-style national identity was presented as evidence that the colonized weren’t ready for freedom, leaders of national movements insisted on constructing histories designed to show that just such nations had been there all along; and today, when the discourse has shifted to women’s empowerment and gay rights, it isn’t surprising to see the once-colonized try and show that they are no longer backward on that front as well – blind to the problem that accepting this discourse of modernization, that is to say, accepting the logic of catching up, means one is forever behind.  Once upon a time, a culture’s greater indifference to homosexuality, or “lax” standards on men and women inter-mingling, made it backward vis-à-vis the Victorians; today the opposite makes one backward, even as the frame remains in place.)

What could be less feminist than this double move?  For Dangal, feminism isn’t even worthy of standing alone as something worth striving for – the something that is worth striving for, that is valuable in and of itself, is nationalism, and women’s empowerment can help that goal.  This is an instrumental feminism, not something one can give Dangal a medal for – indeed, what happens to those who seek or win no medals?  What happens to causes that do not have any payoff in national glory at the end of the quest, merely greater justice (and no, I am not referring to the pat we can all give ourselves on being part of a system where that greater justice is ultimately obtainable – that’s the path of the Hollywood “feel good” movie on race and civil rights, no less clear an example of pandering than Dangal)?  What happens, in short, when the quest for justice does not bring national glory?  On that, it seems, Dangal has nothing to say.

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