Female Wrestlers Are Unlikely Heroines Of Bollywood's Biggest Smash

Jan 13, 2017
Originally published on January 13, 2017 3:47 pm

A blockbuster Bollywood movie is raking in millions and trying to change entrenched gender roles in India. It's set in Haryana state, where the sex ratio of newborns skews heavily toward boys.

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Millions of people are flocking to movie theaters in India to see a film based on a true story, a story that is shattering records at the box office and stereotypes. From New Delhi, here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan grew a pot belly for this entertaining biopic about a former wrestling champion who had once chased dreams of gold-medal glory.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DANGAL")

AAMIR KHAN: (Speaking Hindi).

MCCARTHY: "What I couldn't do our son will," he solemnly tells his pregnant wife. But Mahavir Singh Phogat ends up with a daughter and three more after that. The film "Dangal," or Wrestling, is the story of his first two girls, Geeta and Babita, who turn out to have hidden athletic gifts. When dad discovers they have beaten to a pulp two other boys, he thumbs taboos about girls competing in the sporting arena.

All of India knows the against-the-odds story. Coached by dad, the real life Geeta and Babita go on to win the gold and silver medals at international games in New Delhi in 2010. What intrigued the film's director, Nitesh Tiwari, is this. Why in India is there so much bias against having a girl child.

NITESH TIWARI: Why is there so much desperation only to want a boy? So the movie aims at trying to change this mindset - that a girl is as beautiful a gift of God as a boy.

MCCARTHY: Set in Haryana, where the sex ratio of newborns has historically skewed heavily towards boys, the film explodes myths about gender roles through the improbable sporting triumphs of two girls. It opened almost four years to the day after the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi ignited a national conversation about gender violence. Social commentator Anna M.M. Vetticad says Indians want to see women on the screen portrayed in a new light.

ANNA M M VETTICAD: The success of "Dangal" is excellent news for those who believe that the hero stalking the heroine, extremely abject objectification of women - all of these things which have been Hindi film staples so far - are not the only thing that the entire audience wants.

MCCARTHY: What the audience wants is to be inspired, says 27-year-old Babita Kumari Phogat, whose family is depicted on the screen. Babita has cinched a half a dozen international medals and credits her father for getting her out from under the veil that cloaks many girls in Haryana.

BABITA KUMARI: (Speaking Hindi).

MCCARTHY: "But our biggest victory," Babita says, "is that parents are now encouraging their girls to achieve something."

However, six-time national badminton champion Damayanti Tambay cautions that one movie and some sporting achievements won't reverse entrenched attitudes that limit girls.

DAMAYANTI TAMBAY: It could take a long time. But there has to be a beginning - that, yes, the girls should be given equal opportunity as boys. What's wrong with that?

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.