Dangal: The Girls in a Boy’s Arena


By Kiran Manral

There’s a scene in Dangal that defined the movie for me, a rather innocuous scene when one thinks back to it in retrospect. After all, there were scenes which had one sobbing tears, blowing one’s nose into reams of tissue, other scenes that had one hooting, clapping and cheering, and a scene that had the entire theatre rise to their feet with no awkward hesitation while the national anthem played in the movie.  But the scene that stayed with me long after I’d shuffled out of the theatre, nose still red from the honking, was the one where Geeta Phogat, away from her father’s control for the first time ever, delightedly touches her hair, now grown to beyond her ears from the short ‘boy’ cut she’d been forced to adopt.

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For a girl who had her hair forcibly shorn to a short ‘boy crop’ when just a child, living in a village where the constructs of masculinity and femininity were clearly defined, Geeta and her sister, Babita (as shown in the movie) were not allowed by their father, the authoritarian Mahavir Singh Phogat, to grow their hair beyond a couple of centimetres. There’s another scene where the girls, their hair barely centimetres of fuzz on their scalps, dress up with kajal, bindi, earrings and bangles, and their mother looks on indulgently, saying, that today her daughters look like daughters. There’s a wistfulness to that statement that is shadowed by the tough training regimen that the girls follow which does not allow for the indulgence of feminine things, long hair included.

The barely restrained sense of joy Geeta has when she looks at herself, now with her hair long enough to be tied back, almost brought tears to my eyes.  I’d grown up with a boy cut. There was no wrestling nor any sport in my childhood even though my father was an ex-kabaddi player. I had absolutely zero aptitude for sports. I’m told that my father liked the fact that I looked like a reduction Xerox of him when I had my hair short and perhaps that contributed to his insistence. So the hair remained short. Boy cut at the neighbouring men’s salon, once every month. I was also encouraged to wear shorts and t-shirts. Unwary folk thought of me as a boy before I hit puberty.

I began growing my hair out when he passed away. I was nine then. By the time I hit college, it was a waterfall to my hips. That was my rebellion. This was also Geeta’s.

At the back of my mind is the very relevant depiction of the subversion of gender politics in a state as patriarchal and misogynist as Haryana, where female foeticide and infanticide has created an abysmal gender ratio, pushing men into importing brides from other states, because of the scarcity of women of marriageable age.  The determination of Mahavir Singh Phogat to prove that his daughters were no less than any sons he might have had is touching, in the face of social derision and censure.  As is message to his girls, that ambition is good, and the aim is always to reach gold. A message all us women need to internalise.

The fact that a man, an ex-national level wrestler himself, pushed his daughters into a sport that is the very embodiment of aggressive masculinity with the entire akhada subculture being an ode to Hanuman, a god who epitomises celibacy and strength, is radical of course. That his daughters, Geeta and Babita, went onto become the first Indian women wrestlers to make their mark on the international stage. That all six sisters are now wrestlers of acclaim both nationally and internationally. Their success story has been an inspiration for an entire generation of young girls in states like Haryana, where to be on par with a man, you must fight the men in their own turf—in this case, the akhada, a quintessentially male preserve.  But the most potent symbolic transformation of the girls into wrestlers comes at the point when they shear off their hair.  In this context, Geeta’s rebellion, growing out her hair, painting her nails, prettifying herself is an ode to the sense of self which, under those biceps that can toss a full grown man over her shoulder, is still intrinsically feminine. And which will not be denied.