Last night, I watched the Aamir Khan film, Dangal. The biopic about the former wrestler Mahavir Phogat who defies social convention and trains his two daughters to become gold medalists in the world of women wrestling.
Geeta and Babita Phogat are from the rural hinterlands of the Balali village in the Indian state of Haryana and they resist mockery and ridicule with their crew cuts and shorts pants training in the mud. In 2010, Geeta and Babita won gold and silver in different categories at the Commonwealth Games. Geeta went on to became the first female wrestler to make it to the Olympics for India.
The film is a stunning feat. And is easily the best of the lot of sport biopics to come out of India in 2016. Azhar, a film about former cricket captain Mohamed Azharuddin is easily rather embarrassing in comparison, while Dhoni, about India’s greatest cricket captain is too much of a hagiography to be taken too seriously.
The difference with Dangal of course is the question of belonging. The two girls face a tremendous battle to prove they belong in “a male sport” even before they can conquer the world. The girls get their first fight in the ring not because the organizers believe women should also be allowed to wrestle, but rather because “the spectacle” would sell tickets. It’s not difficult to see “the ring” as precisely the world girls and women need to enter every day face the wrath of objectification, judgement or ridicule.
The masculinity is so profoundly toxic that the two actors that played the two sisters Geeta and Babita were projected by segments of the Indian media as “probably lesbian”.
Still, within the first few days of its release, it broke a series of records at the box office. By the end of the first weekend, Geeta Phogat was the most googled celebrity in India.
In a society like India, where gender parity is a distant dream, the film won’t immediately break down walls. It not the first to showcase the struggle female athletes face in India. Bollywood fans would remember Shah Rukh Khan’s Chak de India that elevated women’s hockey into the nation’s consciousness. In this film from 2007, Shah Rukh Khan plays a coach who leads the national women’s hockey team to world cup glory.
It is apt that almost 10 years later, it is the same pattern of disparaging remarks that come to define male contestation of female inclusion in high level sports. “The girls should be in the kitchen”. “The girl’s place is at home”.
But more disturbingly, in both Dangal and Chak de India, the elevation of women is still a manifestation of an unfulfilled male dream. It is the male coach who emerges as the true hero, and not the women.
Dangal is Bollywood after all, and at times, it is hard to differentiate the father’s ego in pushing his daughter into living out his dreams from his efforts to have his daughters break the mould. Empowerment is hardly about achievement, it is about having the power to make your own decisions.
Nonetheless, the film still highlights the difficulties of women’s sport in India.
Internationally, the story is not that different. Sport has long been the site of struggle against gender prejudice and patriarchy. In places like Germany and UK, where women’s sport is seemingly more mainstream today, it was not long ago that these societies saw women as not suitable to be playing sports like football. It is easy to forget that FIFA launched the women’s World Cup only in 1991.
Back home, it is not as if any of these issues are alien to South Africa. Watching Dangal made me think of the immense struggle and sacrifice an athlete like Caster Semenya has had to endure in building her career.
Or the lack of attention our female footballers and cricketers enjoy from the public and the media. Both cricket and football, like wrestling, is considered a man’s game. The erasure is one and the same. The neglect to project female sport as of equal importance is an extension of the violence that women face from men on a daily basis – be it at the workplace, or on the street, or in the home. Today, we are talking about a future female president when we know that even a benign thing as leisure belongs to men.
Given the influence of Bollywood to tweak with the national imagination, the film is set to stir a national discussion in India. It will become one more cleft to leverage gender parity. Go watch it. Import the conversation.
* Azad Essa is a journalist with Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox