Nitesh Tiwari’s “Dangal” (Hindi slang for the wrestling arena) is the last major Bollywood release of 2016 and also one of the most anticipated. The biography of wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat and his daughters deals with subjects like female empowerment and the treatment of women in sports and has Aamir Khan in the lead.
The film, where a determined father in deeply patriarchal Haryana state trains his daughters to become champion wrestlers, releases this Friday. Tiwari, a software engineer-turned-ad filmmaker-turned film director, spoke to Reuters about “Dangal”, the crucial ingredient in a sports film, and the importance of humour.
Q: What was it about the story of Mahavir Phogat and his daughters that struck you the most?
A: There were multiple layers which attracted me. The underlying strong message that if you give equal opportunities to girls, they too can shine. If you see talent in your child, whether a boy or a girl, and if you go all out to support them, they can do well.
Also, it was a beautiful story of human triumph – of one man against society; one man who believed in his vision when no one else did. He braved criticism and ridicule against him, but never gave up on his dream. It is a beautiful family drama, and clubbed with something as exciting as wrestling, so it had the potential to do so many things.
Q: Was there a negative aspect to the story? Namely, forcing your child to do something that she may not want to do?
A: I don’t believe in forcing anything on children. It boils down to what they want to do in life, but I am telling you from my own experience – we don’t know what we want to do till very late in life. I did my B Tech from IIT, and after working in a software firm for four months, I quit and joined advertising.
If as a parent, you spot potential in your child, I personally feel it would be unfair if you don’t push him in that direction. Afterwards, he’s going to grow up and rebel and there’s nothing you can do about it. But at least you won’t scold yourself for not having done anything.
If you look at success stories of all the great sportspersons, there is either a father or a mother who pushed them towards that sport. You may not like it at the time, but later, you have your parents to thank. When I was kid, I didn’t like some things my parents asked us to do. But in retrospect, those are the most valuable things we learned in life.
Q: Bollywood has made quite a few sports films but not many have become box office hits. What do you think is at the core of a successful sports film?
A: Doing justice to the sport which you are trying to make a film on is absolutely crucial. You have to make it look authentic and real. You have to spend a lot of time to make it look exciting. There’s no other way.
Q: How do you do that? Everyone knows the ending of this story. We’ve read about the Commonwealth gold and the success of the Phogat sisters.
A: That’s your biggest challenge as a writer. Sometimes, the ‘what’ is not important; the ‘how’ becomes important. You know that everyone knows what is going to happen, but you have to write it in a way that people want to know what happens. You know that Sanju is going to win in “Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander” but when Deepak Tijori and his goons throw him down the hill, your heart is still in your mouth. That is what is going to happen in “Dangal”.
Q: Bollywood is known for embellishing its biopics, adding lots of drama and incidents that didn’t really happen. How much embellishment is OK?
A: (Pauses) The sole purpose of story-telling is – how do you keep the audience hooked for two-and-a-half hours? Unfortunately, life doesn’t get written as a screenplay. It may not give you a graph where you want it, so without taking undue liberty, if you can change the magnitude of an incident, or if you can alter sequences and create a few characters around the main characters to give you the added layer, then you can manage to get the desired result.
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Like in “Dangal”, we haven’t touched Mahavir Singh, Geeta and Babita. But we have created a few characters around them which adds a zing to the story. And even though it’s a serious story, we’ve added lots of humour to it.
Q: Can you talk about the humour in your film?
A: Songs like Haanikarak Bapu (Dangerous father), for example, could have been a serious song told from the point of view of Mahavir Singh, which is easy to do. It could have been like “utho, jaago, bhaago (get up, wake up, run) and don’t stop till you achieve the goal. That could have worked perfectly too. But we were very aware while writing that if we don’t inject humour into the proceedings, the story would have been too heavy.
Q: Why would it have been heavy?
A: The basic premise has all the ingredients of becoming a serious story – boy-girl discrimination, man wanting boy (child), man realising the potential of his girls, girls trying to prove themselves in a patriarchal society, etc.
All those things do tend to get very heavy. If you can say it with a tinge of humour, the message doesn’t change, but it becomes more enjoyable and easier for people to take home the message. At the end of the day, you have to realise that you are not making a documentary.