Director’s Cut: Nitesh Tiwari on the Phogats, Aamir Khan and the feminism of Dangal

The Phogats of Haryana made news for unsavoury reasons in recent days when they joined the onslaught against Delhi student Gurmehar Kaur for her pacifist video.

Unfortunate, because the spotlight should have been on them for a more positive reason: Dangal, director Nitesh Tiwari’s film about their inspiring life, crossed yet another milestone when it completed 70 days in theatres on March 2. The Aamir Khan-starrer is the story of real-life coach Mahavir Singh Phogat’s crusade to train his daughters as international medal-winning wrestlers in a deeply patriarchal social environment.

I spoke to 43-year-old Tiwari about Dangal’s success, his superstar hero and the criticism his film has faced for being, some allege, a glorification of patriarchy disguised as feminism. It is a conversation that is particularly relevant in the week of International Women’s Day. Excerpts:

Aamir Khan as Mahavir Singh Phogat in 'Danga'

Aamir Khan with his supporting cast in 'Dangal'

Congratulations on Dangal’s collections, the critical acclaim and awards. Were you always interested in contact sports or is it purely the story that drove you to make this film?

It was purely the story. I grew up in Madhya Pradesh watching akhada wrestling, which is mud wrestling. So I’ve seen dangals in my childhood. It was more of fascination and curiosity rather than falling in love with wrestling at that point. I was too young. But what attracted me to Dangal was the story, the grit, the determination, overcoming odds, individual triumph. What got me excited as a filmmaker was not just this emotional aspect, but also the challenge of doing something new – a film based on wrestling, which is something I was not too well versed with.

People have conflicting views about Dangal’s take on women. Some see it as a feminist film, some think it glorifies patriarchy in the guise of feminism. What is your take on this?  

We were not trying to propagate any views. If people are discussing the film, they are discussing something which happened in real life. People can look at it with their own lens, but all we have done is stuck to what happened in real life and presented it with utmost honesty.

Personally, I do not think the film promotes patriarchy. But what would you say to someone who is concerned that it wittingly or unwittingly glorifies patriarchy because Mahavir is a patriarchal man who breaks boundaries yet continues many norms of patriarchy?

I wouldn’t agree completely. It may seem like that, but if you look at the finer nuances in the film, he is just testing the waters whether his daughters can do what he believes they can. He is not overtly imposing his views on anyone. His wife has a say. It’s not that he said, “This is what I’m doing and you shut up.” His wife is given every right to argue, put her point across.

But the decision is ultimately his.

Ya, but the wife finally kind of relents because he asks her for one year (to see if his daughters can make something of themselves as wrestlers). He does not say, “It’s my way or the highway.”

Okay, but it’s not like he gave her a choice in the matter of giving him that one year.

But he heard her out. In any argument, somebody has to win. We can’t say whoever wins the argument defines the norm. If I have an argument with my wife, it’s either she convinces me or I convince her. In this case, Mahavir Singh has an argument with his wife and convinces her.

Except of course this discussion is taking place in a context where men are the dominant forces worldwide and especially in the space in which you made this film, so it’s not just about saying, in any argument somebody has to win. There is a context.

These questions are always bound to arise not just in context of Mahavir Singh but in context of anything which is gonna happen for the first time, ruffle the feathers and be seen differently by the society. Let me make a hypothetical assumption. If Geeta and Babita had not achieved what they have, nobody would have been discussing this. Because he has managed to help his daughters achieve what they were capable of doing, now the dissection has begun. Would those guys who are questioning this have told these girls, if they had merely become housewives, “Oh, you guys could have become wrestlers but see, your Dad didn’t trust you”? I don’t think so.

Maybe there are thousands of Geetas and Babitas who would not have become Geetas and Babitas. Why nobody talks about them? Anybody tries to do something different, why should it become a question of discussion?

Of course it’s a discussion because he is high profile and his daughters did win, so of course the positive and negative aspects would be discussed. But is it fair to say nobody would have discussed it if his daughters had gone on to become housewives despite their potential to be something else, considering that people who have expressed concern about Dangal include those who constantly write and speak of patriarchy in Haryana and in India as a whole?

But hasn’t the mindset changed in India? Mindset has changed in Haryana.

But this is a more nuanced look at the finer details of your film.

And look at the national wrestling record for the last 15 years, you will predominantly see girls from Haryana ruling. It’s an incredible achievement. A man who managed to change the mindset of a state which had that kind of feeling. A big gate outside Balali village welcomes people and reads: “The village of Geeta, Babita, Ritu and Vinesh.” That’s a fantastic achievement to have that kind of welcoming in a place like Haryana.

Like I said, I don’t agree with those who feel Dangal glorifies patriarchy in the guise of feminism, but I do believe Mr Phogat is breaking norms within the realm of patriarchy, that he remains patriarchal in his attitude but he has also done some revolutionary stuff. Are you disagreeing with both positions?

I would agree with the latter part.

Okay, so you’re saying you’re just portraying a reality, you’re not glorifying the patriarchal aspect of his personality?

Not at all. You look at the film, and there is a softer side to Mahavir Singh as well. It’s not that he doesn’t love his daughters. He presses their feet. Where do you see fathers doing that? He knows what his daughters are capable of and he just wants to give it a shot. Let me put it this way: if the girls were not willing and capable, he would not have done anything.

He wouldn’t have been able to do anything. I can’t force my son to become a cricketer if he’s not interested. I can’t force my daughter to become a badminton champion like Saina Nehwal or P.V. Sindhu if she doesn’t have the talent or is not interested. I can only take her to the court and make her work out for a few days. Then I will say ki okay she is not talented enough, let her do whatever she wants. But if I spot talent in my kids, I’m talking as a father now, if I spot talent in my kids, it’s my moral responsibility to do my best to exploit their talent and see if they can do well in their life. Rest is up to them.

If they turn around and say ki no, we are not interested, I would not force them. I think Mahavirji would have done the same thing. Taali dono haathhon se bajti hai, ek haath se nahin (it takes two hands to clap). Mahavir alone couldn’t have done anything. He had the support of his daughters later on. Very soon they realised that what was happening was for their good. Then there is no question of patriarchy there, it was a father just supporting his daughters’ dream.

Nitesh Tiwari & Amir khan Sachin Gokhale/Firstpost

Nitesh Tiwari & Aamir khan. Sachin Gokhale/Firstpost

Moving on, was the second half of Dangal saying that Geeta should follow her father’s instructions because a father knows best or because her father was a better coach than her official coach?  

It’s not either. You would have seen many examples of coaches being changed by ace players over time. It’s about who understands you best, who brings the best out of you. I don’t know what else to say.

I’ll be more specific. It’s clear that Mahavir’s strategies are better for Geeta than the national coach’s strategies. However it is not clear whether that is the reason the film believes Geeta should listen to her father. When their conflict over the national coach starts, and Geeta defeats her father in a wrestling bout after he refuses to listen to her about new techniques, her sister says, “Aaj jo hua voh sahi nahin hua” (what happened today was not right). In that conversation and in other instances, there is a blurring of that line between whether Mahavir should be heeded because he is a great coach or he should be heeded because it is not fair to hurt Dad over his outdated methods.

(Long pause) I will try to answer bit differently. Wrestling is not the only reason for the change in mindset. It’s a combination of things. This happens with lot of kids when they step out of the house and start living in hostels – the kind of freedom Geeta experiences, it’s a different feeling which she is not used to. That may not have anything to do with wrestling, but that influences her thinking. It kind of makes her go away from wrestling for a while, become more beauty conscious, indulge in things she does not know might harm her in a longer run. She is living in the present, not looking at the larger picture. Those are the things we have tried to portray there.

At that point, it’s very likely that she starts believing what she is doing is right and what her Dad was doing was too much to digest. A moment of fit can result in a bit of tiff and a difference of opinion, and that results in an ego clash. I think it’s a combination of everything. It’s not just about one thing versus another. It’s a combination of all Geeta’s experiences which kind of come to a conclusion in a wrestling bout. When she’s fighting with Mahavirji in the wrestling pit, it’s not just about the techniques, it also represents a lot of other things which Geeta now stands for.

File picture of India's Geeta Phogat in action. Reuters

File picture of India's Geeta Phogat in action. Reuters

I’ll leave it at that. Geeta Phogat’s real life coach P.R. Sondhi has disputed your portrayal of him in the film. How correct is his criticism?

I would just like to say that the character of the coach in the film has been termed as fictional.

You are referring to the opening disclaimer?

Yes, I’m talking about the opening disclaimer, also the way we’ve treated the coach borders more on fiction. We were not trying to point fingers at anybody. In fact, we were so careful even in naming the coach. I googled all the coaches’ names around that time who could have got offended and this (Pramod Kadam) is the name which we kept which was not even remotely close to any coach’s name in any part of the country. That is how careful we’ve been. We’ve not tried to copy anybody’s mannerisms or to give any get-up to look like anybody. Because we knew that we were kind of going to fictionalise the story a lot, so that there is a graph.

End of the day I’m not doing a documentary. I am playing it for the audience who want to get a great cinematic experience. So I need to take those liberties. And I have. But all those liberties give you a better impact and a better cinematic experience. The same thing we have done with the coach’s character – it’s a fictionalised version.

Yes, but Mr Sondhi believes most people will assume that this is the way he behaved although you’ve used a fictional name.

On every platform we have said the coach is fictional. We’ve not pointed fingers at anybody.

Are you saying his criticism is unfair?

It’s natural for him to feel offended, because probably he is assuming we are trying to show him in the film. But we have clearly and always maintained that the coach is fictional. In fact, apart from Geeta, Babita, Mahavirji and his wife, most of the characters are fictional. Even Omkar (Geeta and Babita’s cousin, played by Aparshakti Khurrana in Dangal) is fictional.

In real life, Geeta and Babita practised with five or six cousins, they didn’t practise with only one. But in storytelling it is difficult to focus on five-six cousins, so we combined them and made them one. That’s a fictionalised version. That is what I’m trying to say, that we have stayed true to the story, it’s the mindset and the emotional journey of the Phogat family. Apart from that, things have been modified for the cinematic experience.

Just to give you one small thing which I did purely so that the audience can enjoy the matches even further: in wrestling the real scorecard is very cluttered, it has too many things happening on it. In the film, I have kept scorecard clutter-free. It has got just the two names, the nationality, and Round 1/2/3 in the scores. There is no timer on it. Timer is separate. I’ve not stayed true to the Commonwealth Games scorecard, because that would have been complete injustice to the storytelling, and people would have not really got to understand where to look at. Also, a small deviation from what happens: in reality the timer goes from 0 to 2 minutes. In our film we have got timer to go from 2 minutes to 0. Because I don’t want at a very crucial time people to remember, “Okay, each round is of 2 minutes so if timer is showing 1 minute 45 seconds, that means only 15 seconds are remaining.” You need to take these small-small liberties so that people can enjoy the movie better.

The changes to the score card or the merging of several cousins into one character do not harm anyone, whereas Mr Sondhi’s point is that irrespective of whether you have used his name or not, his reputation has been harmed. Would you agree that there is a difference between this and the other changes you just described?  

But we’ve not taken anybody’s name. We’ve not pointed finger at anybody. I don’t know how else to explain this. We’ve maintained our stance very clearly that coach is a fictionalised character. I gave you the example of the name choosing thing, the mannerisms and everything. I don’t think he has any reason to feel offended.

You said during the course of your answer that it is natural for Mr Sondhi to assume that you are portraying him, although you are not. If it is natural for him to assume you’re portraying him, is it not natural for the audience to assume that you are portraying someone who is at least loosely based on Geeta’s real coach?

I’ll tell you why it is natural for him to assume and why it is not natural for the audience to assume. No. 1, because he was very close to what happened maybe that’s what makes him assume these things. No. 2, audience are not going to assume anybody’s name, they are not even aware of who the person might have been.

Do you completely disagree with his position that Dangal has tarnished his reputation?

I’m not completely disagreeing. I empathise with him for feeling that way, but I’m assuring that there has been no intention from our side to do anything in that direction. We’ve taken all proper precautions and care in making sure that no fingers are pointed at anybody.

Okay, the inclusion of the national anthem in Dangal’s narrative flowed naturally for me, but that youngster in the audience shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” felt like a contrivance. Did you insert the slogan because you were conscious of the dominant voices in the current national discourse who demand that each of us should give evidence of our love for India?

That part came straight from our heart. I love it. I have shouted “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” all my childhood in my school assembly. It has been a part of my life. If it has not been a part of anybody’s life I don’t know.

We’ve written it from our experience. Every 15th August or 26th January when we’re hoisting the flag, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” is there. I have seen people doing it in stadiums when the national anthem is played. So to me it’s probably the most natural thing.

Here’s a point that didn’t strike me. A friend who watched Dangal felt it was a conscious decision on your part to have a Muslim character shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, again because of the prevailing atmosphere. Was it a conscious decision?  

I’m amazed at what people are taking out of something which was never intended. People should stop reading too much. It’s pretty unnecessary in my opinion. (Laughs) Honestly, till you pointed it out to me, it never crossed my mind.

All the points I have raised with you are already in the public realm, either in articles or social media discussions or both. Is there any criticism that has put you off?

I don’t get put off by anything. I take everything in my stride. I don’t get over-awed by praise, I don’t get overtly perturbed by criticism. I have lived this life for a very long time to have got accustomed to all kind of feedback on my work. I take my learnings and try to apply them in my future work. It’s part and parcel of a creative person’s life.

Tell me something about Aamir Khan that we don’t know already?

What you don’t know probably is, what an amazing human being he is. I mean, you might know it, but amazing in the sense that he is so cool, no starry tantrums, he is almost like a common man. He has a terrific sense of humour, which I find intriguing. In any free time he would be sitting with a book. He loves to read.

Something which you don’t know about Aamir Sir is that he is extremely extremely sporting. Matlab, you can crack a joke on him and he will take it on his chin. Even the kids were allowed to be jovial with him. You can pull his leg and he will take it in his stride. There was also no question of him not following any rule that applied to everyone on the sets. If phones were not allowed on the set, Aamir Sir was not having the phone on the set. Smoking was not allowed on the set, nobody smoked. If there was no air-conditioning on the set, there was no airconditioning. Everybody stayed in the same hotel. So, he is a part of you, he is so easygoing.

Tell me anecdotes that would help us understand him better.

Aamir Khan. Facebook photo

Aamir Khan in Dangal. Facebook photo

Uh, he used to tell me because of his weight gain for the role, that what you have reduced me to, I can’t even tie my shoelaces.

I don’t know if you know that the commentary in the Commonwealth Games in the film is my voice. Because that is the voice I had put during the rough cut and it kind of stuck in our heads, so it remained in the film. Aamir Sir would jokingly tell me that I sincerely pray what we have done works in the audience, nahin toh phir mere paas ek career option hai ki main, bhai, logon ko weight lose karna sikhaoonga (otherwise I have the career option to teach people how to lose weight) and you can hope to make a career in the commentary.

Is he a far more casual and relaxed person than people tend to assume based on his image of being a perfectionist at work?

These are two different things. He’s a different person when it comes to work. I’m talking about not such known facts about his personality. He is non-compromising when it comes to work. Zero compromise. I was talking purely about him as a person.

There is a Hindi media report that Mahavir Singh has indicated that there will be a Dangal 2. Are you considering a sequel? Are you aware of any such project not involving you?

I am not aware of this.

There are reports that your next project is a film you have scripted, to be produced by Sajid Nadiadwala, it may star Aamir and is going on the floors next year. Is this true?

I am doing a film with Sajid Nadiadwala, but when, with whom and whether or not it will be my next project will take some time to decide. Anything else regarding that project is speculations.

Okay, where do you go from here?

I am standing at a crossroad. There are few directions open in front of me, I don’t know where to go. I think I will stand at that crossroad for a while till I’m very clear which direction I want to take. (Laughs)

Are you referring to scripts you can choose from or is there anything other than film direction you might take up?

No, I’m only talking about scripts. I think somebody said, filmmaking is the last desk job you can do on Earth. That’s what I would love to do.


Published Date: Mar 07, 2017 10:14 am | Updated Date: Mar 07, 2017 05:00 pm


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