‘Dangal’ and the Perils of Changing Recorded History

Is it ok if a Kapil Dev biopic shows him making 175 not out against West Indies instead of Zimbabwe in 1983?

Updated10 Jan 2017, 08:38 AM IST
4 min read

So, Dangal becomes the highest grossing film in Hindi film history, beating Aamir Khan’s own PK. This is actually very heartening because Dangal is a wonderful film on so many levels. For a hardcore mainstream film that tells a real story in a rooted way, that uses humour with warmth and with performances as good as there are in this, it’s a worthwhile film to represent the best face of Bollywood. Especially given that the other high grossing films that gives it company in that rarified “post-Rs 300 crore” club are Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Sultan apart from PK.

However, Dangal also represents something else that can be more identified with Bollywood than cinema from any other part of the world.

Why Let Facts Come In the Way...?

If a mainstream Hindi film is made in the future about Kapil Dev, would you be surprised if his 175 not out in the 1983 World Cup is shown as being made in the final against West Indies (instead of being against Zimbabwe in a relatively inconsequential group game, like what really happened)? Would you accept it in the name of dramatisation or would it make you apoplectic?

This was my biggest problem with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which was filled with factual falsehoods around sporting encounters, including the famous one spread by Milkha Singh himself that looking back during the race cost him an Olympic medal. It is even more saddening therefore that Dangal, a far superior film to that one, has to resort to similar falsehoods, as if the true story is not good enough.

Modified Scores for Drama

Fatima Sana Shaikh in <i>Dangal </i>as Geeta Phogat<i>. </i>
Fatima Sana Shaikh in Dangal as Geeta Phogat.

The argument that a "1-0, 7-0" triumph to win Gold at the Commonwealth Games (which is what really happened) is not quite as dramatic as a "5-1, 4-6, 6-5" win (a blatant lie in the film) and therefore required – is a lazy one.

But Geeta Won Before...

As indeed is the need to establish that Geeta Phogat had not won any international medal before the one shown in the film (a lie, as she won Gold at the Commonwealth wrestling Championships, less than a year before this one).

The Fictitious Crooked Coach

Girish Kulkarni as the conniving coach in <i>Dangal.</i>
Girish Kulkarni as the conniving coach in Dangal.

Moreover, the Bollywood touch of having a crooked and insecure coach as an adversary and the vilification of the NSA in this context, is fundamentally objectionable as no such coach existed in Phogat's real-life story.

No, Mahavir Didn’t Shout From the Stands

Aamir Khan as Mahavir Phogat in <i>Dangal.</i>
Aamir Khan as Mahavir Phogat in Dangal.

Nor did Mahavir Phogat ever shout instructions from the stand, hell, there was apparently never even any disagreement with Geeta's real-life coach (who is understandably very upset about the portrayal, as per several media reports – most people are just shrugging that off as collateral damage).

And Mahavir Wasn’t Locked Up Either

And that last bit of locking Mahavir Phogat up in a storeroom to prevent him from being in the stands is in extreme bad taste. One, Phogat did watch his daughter win that Gold from the stands. Two, that vilification of an implied character and an institution is beyond the realm of belief (given what the repercussions of such an act would have been in real life) – and it really is a writer's cheap trick; its point was entirely predictable.

It is just very disappointing to see someone like Aamir Khan not being able to transcend this Bollywood fakery, given the many, many things which are impressive about the film, especially in the mainstream format. It is as if mainstream India doesn't care for the facts – not in films, or politics (as evidenced in 2014), or indeed, life.

The Irony of Real vs Reel

The interesting irony here is this – several biopics have been stalled in Bollywood in the past (for example, those on Kishore Kumar and Guru Dutt) because of objections from certain quarters about the real truth being told, as it shows some in a less-than-glorious light. But here, despite having genuinely inspiring stories to tell, the high points are dressed up and exaggerated with ludicrous and utterly unnecessary lies. It is embarrassing to see this lack of imagination being justified in the name of "adding drama".

Hollywood films, even the likes of Argo and Sully – despite the license they take in the name of storytelling (which every biographical fiction film has to for compactness) – do not ever resort to this kind of fakery. A lot of the time they can't, because of legal reasons.

Fatima Sana Shaikh, Geeta Phogat, Babita Kumari and Sanya Malhotra. (Photo: Yogen Shah)
Fatima Sana Shaikh, Geeta Phogat, Babita Kumari and Sanya Malhotra. (Photo: Yogen Shah)

The REAL Problem

The real problem is when we change recorded history, which is what sporting encounters at the national and international level are. By changing them to inject “drama”, these films are fundamentally saying that those accomplishments were not big enough. Furthermore, they are misrepresenting history, which then removes all value as a historical document as well. And it doesn’t say much for the imagination of these filmmakers if they are unable to inspire their audience with the same facts that inspired them to make that film in the first place.

The audience doesn’t care, as is sadly evident. But at least, the filmmakers needn’t tom-tom that it is a real story if they want to change recorded history. But unfortunately, in a “post-truth” world interested only in short-term gain, maximising personal benefit at the cost of all else is the name of, as it were, the game.

(Jaideep Varma is a writer and filmmaker.)

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Published: 09 Jan 2017, 10:22 AM IST

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