On Dangal, informally..
I somehow lack the motivation these days to write proper pieces (or even anything) on films these days. At least in terms of formal posts. I am therefore indulging in a bit of a compromise here. Dangal deserves its own post but I am just going to do informal ‘bullet points’ on the film. Having seen the first show of the film (at my end) I feel I should be reasonably quick to say something about it as well! So here goes ‘less than nothing’..
1) Dangal is excellent in terms of how it’s put together. The storytelling is economic, really no unnecessary scenes, everything counts here. It’s a gripping narrative throughout. But additionally it’s also at very many points a rather moving film. It obviously has all the highs one would associate with a sports subject but even more than these it has very involving emotional cues that are not trite in any sense. From a purely storytelling perspective it’s hard to see how this film could be bettered.
2) The performances are without doubt the key to the entire work. Because ultimately and even with everything I’ve just said about it there’s nothing particularly special about the subject. We know the story, we expect the dramatic arc it presents. If there are nonetheless surprises in many of the key moments these are sustained by the portrayals. The performances are uniformly good. Aamir’s is a very sincere outing here and he very convincingly plays the older part as well. It’s also a somewhat generous choice on his part as he is pivotal without quite being central beyond a point. To term this his best performance is going too far but it superbly matches the tone and pitch of this film. It is certainly an important star turn for him and at the risk of cliche it’s not easy to imagine his contemporaries being able to pull this off.
The heart and soul of the film however are the two sisters, both as children and then when they’re older. The portrayals are beautifully pitched in both cases and so well done that even when Aamir isn’t around there is no loss in the film’s world. Beyond this the relationships the two share with their father as well as with each other are extremely authentic and truly affecting.
3) Additionally the songs are very well integrated throughout, the small town details have been handled with great care, the lingo convinces, the interiors come off as genuine as the exteriors, the camerawork is always optimal.
4) Essentially I’m saying this is a very good film. It’s not an extraordinary one, the comparisons with Lagaan which some have made are a bit silly, this is a much more modest film but it does everything it attempts almost without fault. And once more what worked for me more than anything else was the emotional tug of the film or in turn the key performances of the father and the two daughters. I could possibly see it again but this film lacks nothing in terms of ‘entertainment’. This is the best commercial treatment the film could have been given without diluting the sincerity of the enterprise. I would be surprised if this didn’t have real staying power at the box office and didn’t threaten those highest benchmarks. The emotion of the film really carries one through and it’s rare to get this sort of film from Bollywood where the stress is usually much more on pure entertainment even on a good day. This film does everything including entertainment but there are no noteworthy cynical decisions here.
5) At the same time I am not going to overrate the film in the ways the Indian media usually does when it comes to certain subjects. The film’s liberalism while commendable is also nothing radical or particularly thought-provoking. It has a nice message of female empowerment (incidentally all the fad these days, Pink was another recent example) and I certainly understand that within the bounds of the subject they couldn’t have done much more with it but still there’s nothing to celebrate here in this sense. So yes good liberalism but it’s par for the course for its multiplex audiences. One doesn’t have to convince anyone with this message! This isn’t a problem with the film but it is one with its core audience (also represented by the media classes). The latter tend to celebrate liberal platitudes as pathbreaking commentary and when films truly do something darker or more provocative (Talaash is an example) suddenly no one is as charitable. Specially when twinned with the idea of this empowerment coming about in the context of a semi-rural or small town setting there is more than complacency involved in such an enterprise.
6) I must say as a bit of an aside that the one false note in the film was struck by the film’s Muslim character. He has a brief part but he’s stereotypical in a cringe-inducing way. Which is to say he isn’t a Desai Muslim stereotype but an in keeping with the present, a Hindutva one! I won’t flesh this out here, I of course don’t doubt the good intentions of the director but we sometimes absorb certain stereotypes without intending to. In an analogous sense I also had a problem with the lower caste character in Lagaan.
Besides this a twist in the climactic moments is very forced. The message at that point could have been conveyed with a more plausible plot device.
7) To repeat then this is not a film to be missed by any stretch. I don’t believe there’s a repeat value issue here. In fact it’s a great credit to the film that it seems completely fresh even with Sultan having released in the recent past. On the other hand the competition scenes while totally engrossing might have seemed ‘newer’ still without that earlier film. Those overlaps are unavoidable despite of course the obvious and overwhelming superiority of Dangal in every imaginable department of filmmaking. It’s certainly unfair that Sultan stole the idea to whatever degree it did.
And finally I’m not the greatest fan of sports films anywhere but this is probably the best Hindi work in this genre. Lagaan is undoubtedly better but I think it’s reductive to call Lagaan just a sports film. But that would be the only possible exception. In any case it’s not a film to be missed in the theater, it’s a significant addition to Aamir’s already important oeuvre since Lagaan, and it looks set to be another massive grosser for him. He certainly highlights once again that he’s really in a class of his own at the moment (as he has been for so long) in terms of his choices and his larger contributions.