Is Mahavir Singh Phogat of ‘Dangal’ a misogynist character?

While there is a debate on whether to boycott or not boycott Dangal due to Aamir Khan’s comments, there is another debate going on about the movie that is more about the story rather than the story teller.

This debate is whether Aamir Khan has sent out a message through Dangal that is directly in conflict with what he sent out in 3 Idiots i.e. whether children should be allowed to chase their own dreams or forced to follow the dreams of their fathers.

Some are arguing, and it may appear right, that in Dangal, Aamir Khan is playing character of a father who thrusts his unfulfilled dream of winning an Olympic medal upon his daughters, and that this is not the same father of 3 Idiots who lets his son drop out of engineering course to pursue photography.

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Not just that, since this time it’s daughters and not sons, there is a bonus criticism about sexism and patriarchy too. For example, this particular criticism:

Dangal review by Huffington Post
Fair criticism?

The above article is quite critical of Aamir and at one place it says “this film is not about the women, but about one man driven by his male ego.

Is this a fair criticism?

Outwardly it may seem so, but this criticism suffers from the weakness many people, incidentally on the ‘left’ side of the ideological divide, have shown on other occasions when they have failed to look at a character beyond their own binaries.

Such critics are so obsessed with their own idea of political correctness that they fail to notice the nuances. They will be particularly upset at reading this, because they usually consider themselves the masters of understanding nuances.

This failure to notice the nuances was limited to misinterpreting and misdiagnosing Hindu epics earlier as they raced to apply their modern “progressive” standards on events that took place thousands of years ago, but it now appears to be percolating to even Bollywood movies.

In case you are wondering what is being argued, recall the criticism of Lord Rama, who is often abused as “misogynist” by some because he made Sita-mata go through agnipariksha and later separated from her because a dhobi (washer-man) raised some objections.

Sounds pretty fair on modern feminist standards, right? But the nuance missed here is when people confuse, or maybe deliberately ignore, that Ramayana is not a husband-wife story. The character of Lord Rama is playing roles of that of a son, a husband, a king, a warrior, a brother, and so on – and more often than not, these roles are in conflict with each other.

When Rama decides to listen to an ordinary washer-man and “abandons” his wife, he takes that decision as a ruler, not as a husband. As a ruler, he had to bow down to what his subjects felt. His decision to separate from Sita was to show that a king in Ram Rajya has to follow the same moral and civil codes that an ordinary washer-man has to. Rama upheld standards of a society – which surely were not “progressive” when viewed from modern feminist standards – because upholding those standards was supposed to be his dharma as a ruler.

Ramayana and other epics are full of such nuanced characters and events, but they are often critiqued through modern binaries and judgments are passed over characters. We had earlier shown how Goswami Tulsidas is similarly attacked with critics paying no attention to the nuances of a character he developed.

Bringing down Hindu epics is a form of virtue signalling that helps people show that they are “progressive”, and it appears that we have seen the same virtue signalling when it comes to criticism of Aamir’s character in Dangal.

The character that is being claimed as that of a person full with male ego and a father thrusting upon his dreams upon his daughters, is actually the character of a Coach.

When Mahavir Singh Phogat – the character in the movie, not the real person – forces his daughters through rigorous exercises and even punishments, it is not a father thrusting his unfulfilled desires on his daughter but a coach determined to make his students shine on international levels.

This is clear from the storyline of the movie where one can see that once Phogat becomes the father of a fourth girl child, he buries his dream of seeing his son win a medal. Does it means misogyny because he wanted a son? Again, the context has to be seen. We are talking about Haryana – a state with one of the worst sex-ratio and not really known for gender equality especially in the time the movie is set. And add to that wrestling – a sport not that well identified with women.

He picks up all his trophies and puts them in a box, symbolising how he he has given up on this one wish. It is only later, when he is told that his daughters handed a solid beating to two boys, the coach in him spots talent in the little girls. And then the man in him realises that it is not only boys who can win medals. That is not exactly misogyny, but realisation about gender equality.

It is not like those girls wanted to be singers or dancers while their father decided to make them wrestlers. Do we not marvel when we hear about how athletes in other countries are spotted young and trained for big events? And did we not hear stories about how Pullela Gopichand, coach of PV Sindhu who won a Silver medal at the Olympics earlier this year, confiscated her mobile phone, made her go through rigorous exercises, didn’t allow her to meet friends, banned her having ice-cream, and all such stuff? Was Gopichand driven by some male ego or was it the determination of a coach to see his student excel?

That is exactly what Aamir’s character in the movie does. He is playing the role of a disciplined coach, not of an egoist father. In one of the scenes from the movies this dichotomy is brought to the fore. After a hard day’s training, while his daughters are asleep, the tough cookie Phogat crumbles, and is seen pressing his daughters’ tired legs. That’s when he remarks: “I can be either their father or their coach at any one point of time, not both.”

This is the nuanced character that Aamir Khan is playing, A coach who wants to see his students push the envelope, thus thrusting them into a world of trial and hard work, yet a caring and loving father, who worries for his daughters too.

Criticism and analysis of a character always enriches and extends the experience of watching a movie or reading a novel, but when some obvious nuances are missed in such criticism, one wonders if it was genuine criticism, or just a virtue signalling.


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