“Dangal” Shows How Far Women Have Come in Bollywood — And How Far They Have Yet to Go
While aspects of Dangal are better than traditional Bollywood for women’s empowerment, it‘s not perfect. Here’s why.
by Sanjana Lakshmi
I’ve grown up watching Bollywood movies, and one thing my mother has always pointed out to me is the treatment of women in these films. A familiar trope in the Bollywood industry is the “hard-to-get” woman who turns down an interested man, but the man continues to be persistent (often to an unhealthy degree) until the woman ends up falling in love with him.
This sends a dangerous message to those who watch Bollywood movies — essentially, that “no” does not actually mean “no.” Another issue in many popular Bollywood movies is the “item number” — a song and dance that has little to do with the female character’s role, and in which women tend to dance in a sexually provocative manner. The woman who leads the choreography is called an “item girl.” Now, I’m all for sexual expression, but when women are literally called “items,” that’s pretty objectifying.
This is not to say that Bollywood is all bad. There have been quite a few movies that have featured strong female protagonists and even centered around them without item numbers or problematic romantic subplots.
For example, Queen (2014) tells the story of a young woman named Rani whose husband calls off their wedding because of her ideologies. Rani then goes alone on their pre-booked Honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam, where she makes interesting new friends and learns more about herself.
In Pink (2016), a lawyer represents three women who sue men who attack and attempt to assault them, giving importance to their voices and stories and recognizing a woman’s freedom to her own sexuality.
Over the winter holiday, Dangal (2016) was released. Dangal is a movie based on a true story about former professional wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, who trains his two daughters, Geeta and Babita, to follow in his footsteps. His older daughter, Geeta, was India’s first female wrestler to win at the Commonwealth Games. In Dangal, too, there were no item numbers, nor was there any unnecessary romantic subplot. In fact, the two girls seem to thrive in success, beating up boys twice their size as teenagers and defying any expectations and stereotypes their fellow villagers held about them.
However, even in these so-called “feminist movies,” there are dark sides. Dangal has received overwhelmingly positive reviews — it was a very well-produced and well-acted movie — and has been lauded as progressive. While there are aspects of the movie that seem to be better than traditional Bollywood for women’s empowerment, Dangal is not perfect. In a sense, the film is more about the girls’ father than the girls themselves — it is about Phogat’s dream for his child to earn a medal for India. As he says in the movie, he will not be happy until his daughter earns a medal for the country, not for herself, and it is not until that happens that he tells her that he is proud of her.
From the very beginning of the film, Phogat wanted a male heir to follow in his wrestling footsteps. He and his wife gave birth to four girls, and Phogat paid them no attention until they took down a boy who insulted them. It was only after they showed this physical strength that Phogat looked at them as though they were worth something. However, when he began to train the girls, they made it clear that they were uninterested in wrestling. They showed no interest in the sport and, in fact, went out of their way to avoid the grueling practices through which their father put them. Their autonomy and personal choices were completely ignored.
The film also demonizes traditionally “feminine” characteristics: when the girls dress up and go to their friends’ wedding, their father is exceptionally angry. When Geeta decides to grow her hair out and paint her nails, she suddenly begins losing wrestling matches, and when she cuts her hair again — listening to what her father tells her to do — she gets back into the game.
Women need to be afforded the opportunity to make our own decisions: about what we want to do with our lives, about the way we want to look and about the things we enjoy. We deserve respect whether or not we follow the dreams of male members of our families, and if we follow those dreams, it should be of our own accord. So, Bollywood is improving when it comes to feminism, but there is still a lot more work to do.