I put up my NO SPOILERS review last night after I got home, and then I slept for 5 hours, and now I am at work and all ready to write my SPOILERS review. And then right after work is family dinner tonight, and then I come home and do laundry and wrap 37 presents and empty my sink of dirty dishes and maybe think about finishing decorating my trees. Christmas week releases are not the easiest. So forgive me if this review sounds a little punchy.
Spoilers, yaaaaay! Normally I do the whole movie in one paragraph and then talk about the bits I found most interesting. But in this case, it was the whole movie that I found interesting. That is, the plot of the whole movie. So I don’t want to cover it in just one paragraph, I want to go through it point by point and show how, in every case, they very carefully avoided any dangerous gender messages.
We start with a voice over from “Omkar”, Aamir’s nephew who will be telling us the story. Which made me immediately depressed, because I thought they were inserting a male point of view so the audience would have someone to “relate” to. But that’s not what it was at all! Omkar is the observer, the outsider recording the hero’s journey, the support player in someone else’s story. Which is great! Both in terms of giving a male character a limited role in the narrative, and in terms of modeling for society how an age-mate male can be supportive and helpful and encouraging to his “sisters”, and can take pride and joy in their accomplishments without a hint of rancor.
(I guess Rajnikanth kind of does that a little in Baasha too, but it doesn’t feel quite the same!)
The first section of the movie is a little confused, and it is a good thing we have the voice over, because it keeps jumping back and forth in time. Really cool opening, a television broadcasting some international game at which the Indian wrestling team is putting up a poor performance. The TV is in some small dusty office with desks and files and Aamir is watching it, with a mustache and a slight beard and dark hair. A much taller man with a bigger mustache comes to stand next to him and complains that the Indian wrestlers are no good. And then there is this cool effect where as the announcer on the TV is describing the international match, the same thing is happening in the office as Aamir and his new work colleague prepare to wrestle. The work colleague tries to convince him not to fight, saying “Don’t feel bad if you lose, you would be losing to a state level champion.” And then of course Aamir tosses him in like 3 seconds and walks away, and his workmates comfort the loser saying “Don’t feel bad, you lost to a National champion.”
So that part was super cool, and I can see why they wanted to open with that sequence (which also includes Aamir taking off his shirt and showing his wrestler’s build). But it gets confusing because that was in 1988, and then we have to go back and forth to get the full Aamir backstory. He was a national champion with dreams of international glory. But his father told him there was no money in wrestling and convinced him to stop and take the office job he was offered. Now, he has a small office job and a wife and dreams of having a son who he can support and encourage and pass on his love of wrestling and maybe finally bring an international trophy home for India.
Only, his first child is a daughter. And then, after getting advice from everyone else in town, they have another child. Who is also a daughter. And then a few years later, another set of two daughters. And finally he gives up on his dream.
This was the first tricky part of the film, how do you handle the gender preference issue? This is Haryana, where the sex ratio is the worst in India (120 boys to 100 girls, normal is between 102 and 107 boys per 100 girls). To sugar coat it and pretend he never wanted a son, that would remove a vital element to the story. But to somehow try to make it “acceptable” to the audience for him to prefer a son to a daughter, that would seem to approve of all the sort of practices that have lead to the loss of 13 girls who should have been born but weren’t (is that how ratios work? Math is hard!).
(Or maybe if I watch this video I few more times I will learn how to count better)
The movie handled it just perfectly. Yes, he wanted a son. But not because “boys are better”, but because he had a very specific dream which could only be accomplished by a son. It would have been the same if his dream was for his child to be, I don’t know, a fashion model. In that case, he would have really wanted a daughter.
(Do you think Shashi really wanted a daughter, and then he “settled” for making Karan into a model instead? Probably not, but now I want it to be true. And I want to watch the movie)
And there is a scene that is almost too on the nose in the dialogue, but not quite because it seemed like something that needed to be said straight out between the couple, anything beyond a simple statement would lead to doubts and festering worries. This is after Babita is born, Aamir is looking at her in the cradle and he says straight out to Sakshi (his wife), “I love my girls and I am happy with my daughters. And I don’t blame you. But I am sad that the wrestlers blood in my veins will not go into my son.”
Crisis averted! He isn’t mad at his wife for not having a son (another huge cause of violence and tragedy, when the blame is put on the woman for not having a son. I mean, look what happened with Henry the 8th!). And he does love his daughters and wouldn’t want them to be any different. It’s just this one particular dream that could only be realized with a son.
For the rest of the movie, besides the wrestling part of it, we do see him be a loving and involved father to his daughters. Little shots of him helping the younger ones with their homework, holding a baby, feeding them. If he hadn’t started training them, they still would have had a warm and healthy and loving relationship with him. He didn’t love them any more or any less because of wrestling, it’s just that wrestling was one way he could express his love and share his experiences with them.
The next big pothole I was worried about was if it would be that the girls were just raw clay, that Aamir made the decision for them that they would be wrestlers and they just went along with it. But again, the movie brilliantly avoids this hole.
Firstly, it is the girls themselves that give him the idea. They beat up a couple of boys who are a few years older than them, which is what makes him think he could train them. It’s the fighting spirit that was already in them, and the raw natural aggression, that is what inspired him. It wasn’t just that he decided they should be wrestlers and then made it happen.
Secondly, we have a lot of nice conversations between Aamir and Sakshi about this decision. It isn’t something that he magically decided and knew would succeed. We hear that he has doubts, and worries, and it is something they decide as co-parents to maybe try, but with reservations. And then they turn around and present it to their daughters as a mutual firm decision. Because that’s what parents do, they have big fights and discussions, and then turn around and pretend to their kids that everything is fine and settled and perfect. But while the little girls may think Aamir is an all knowing and all powerful dictator, we in the audience know that this is just something he is thinking about trying and isn’t sure about himself.
And thirdly, because we know that Aamir and Sakshi made a deal it would only be a for a year, we know (even if the girls don’t) that it is their growing interesting and enthusiasm which finally tips the scales and makes Aamir decide to keep training them after that year is over. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have.
I love the broad strokes of how the girls come to decide to train seriously. The early training is as hilarious and light-hearted as I thought it would be from the song. They complain complain complain, the way kids do. They try to avoid practice, they passively resist all training, and finally they trick him by resetting his alarm clock and then sneak out to a neighborhood wedding. The first part of the wedding sequence I liked, we see the girls dancing and happy, and we see the bride, about their age, looking really scared and sad.
(This is the funny bit)
But then it gets just way way too heavy handed after Aamir shows up at the wedding and yells at them and then storms off. The girls are sitting with the bride, complaining about their father, and the bride gives a looooooooooong speech about how she wishes she had a father like that, one who saw her as more than just a burden to be married off at 14 to a man who will just see her as someone to give him children. And it might as well have been a dog talking so far as realism is concerned. 14 year olds don’t talk like this! Really, the message is great, and it’s nice that the bride is allowed to speak for herself, but the dialogue really needed a second and third pass. It’s this long monologue with no slang or hesitation or anything. It would have been so much more powerful, and less clunky feeling, if it had sounded like a scared 14 year old actually sounds.
Setting that aside, the message is SPOT ON. They are wrestling for their lives. This is a Hail Mary pass to give them independence and freedom and save them from an early marriage, motherhood, and lost life. Their father may have started them on this path through genetic pre-disposition to fighting and giving them access to training, but the decision to keep going and use this as a way out of their lives, that is all coming from inside them.
And so all the triumphs that follow are thanks to them, not their father. Geeta wins her first wrestling competition because she is brave and skilled and dedicated. Babita does as well. They go on from strength to strength primarily thanks to their own raw talent and ambition.
Aamir, and Omkar, are just there to support their dreams. Which is lovely! For Aamir, it doesn’t feel like he is living out his dreams through them or like he is overly sacrificial. This is just kind of normal fatherhood. His girls need something, so he finds a way to get it for them, even if it means gathering all the mattresses in the neighborhood to teach them how to fight on a mat, or taking a 2 month leave from his job to get his daughter ready for Nationals.
For Omkar, well, he is just a naturally beta type person. He gets wrestler training along with the girls, not because he has any talent, but because they need a sparring partner in order to improve. He carries their equipment, he gets beat up, he takes all kinds of abuse. And, in one of my favorite parts, when Aamir decides the girls need to eat chicken in order to get stronger, Omkar is the one brought in to help Aamir cook it after Sakshi refuses to have meat in her kitchen.
And so this story that could have been about “Noble powerful father turns his daughters into wrestlers” turns into a story about “Wild little girls dedicate themselves to wrestler training in order to escape marriage, graciously share their triumph with their father and cousin.”
This is the whole first half of the movie, the girls resisting training, growing to love it, winning state and then national level competitions, and finally Geeta leaving home and her father’s training for the first time in order to go to the National academy.
And before moving on, I want to deal with some things that the filmmakers decided to avoid from the real life story. First, I am pretty sure that I read the “real life” male cousin had been brought into the family as the male that their father could train. And that he went on to win some state level competitions. So he wasn’t exactly the forgotten beta male, in fact it might have been more like the girls initially being trained to help him and then showing their real talent.
Secondly, I am also pretty sure that the heart ache over not having a son and the decision to train the daughters wasn’t quite as “of course I love them no matter what and would never trade them for a son!” as it is shown in the movie. I mean, how could it be? This is pretty much the best possible version of that story, wanting a son but loving his daughters just as much as he would have loved a son.
And thirdly, the real life Mahavir was actually more of a hero in this era than the movie makes him out to be! He didn’t just have 4 daughters, his brother was murdered in a “land dispute” (Haryana is SCARY!), and Mahavir and his wife took in their orphaned nieces who are now also wrestling champions, along with the 2 younger daughters who he also trained.
And I am fine with all these changes!!!! They want to tell a simple story about Mahavir and his two oldest daughters. And so they changed his relationship with his nephew and his nieces, and they softened some of the edges of his reaction to having daughters, and the overall message becomes that much stronger. (however, if Disney ever wants to make a sequel in which Mahavir rescues his nieces from a bloody land war and trains them to be wrestlers so they can defend themselves, I will be there opening day!)
(It will be like this, but with the genders reversed and Aamir instead of Sridevi!)
In the second half, now with two new actresses, Geeta is separated from the family at the National Academy, with a new coach, and Babita is still home training hard. I love the little girl actresses, they both had very expressive little faces, and I love the adult actresses as well, they also have expressive faces and strong faces, not the usual soft prettiness. But it did feel a bit odd that we went from the tiny girls to the big ones. I understand they didn’t want to cast new actresses just for a “time passing” montage, but it felt a little bit like they went from 12 to 18 over night.
Anyway, at the sports academy, another pothole avoided! This is the part of the movie that really surprised me. At first it seems to match what we saw in the trailers. Aamir drops Geeta off and tries to talk to her coach, to tell him that this girl is something special and she could be an all time champion. And the coach slaps him down, telling him that he is the coach now, not Aamir, and he needs to drop his daughter off and leave her to him. And then while Aamir goes home to keep training Babita, Geeta starts for the first time to see the world outside of her father’s vision for her. For instance, Shahrukh Khan! Her roommate takes her to the TV room that night where all the girls are gathered because DDLJ is on TV. Super cute watching her loosen up and whistle and be converted to joyful female happiness for the first time!
I thought this was all supposed to be a good thing, we had that tinkly little song and she was so happy about everything, I thought it was going to be a lesson about how Aamir’s methods were wrong and cruel and she can find true happiness with balance in her life, etc. etc. etc.
And at first it kind of looked that way. She went home for her first break and wanted to teach Babita and her father’s other students (their little homemade wrestling ring now has a whole group of students, mostly female) some of the “new techniques” she is learning. Aamir stops her, and asks if her “new techniques” will defeat him. And there is a just BRUTAL scene in which the two of them wrestle for real. She gets smashed under his weight, he gets thrown around and can’t breath, and finally she defeats him and strides off.
This is also the scene where we can most appreciate the body make-over Aamir went through for this film. There are essentially 4 versions of Aamir. In that one brief flashback we see him as a young and rising wrestler with an innocent face and big muscles and bigger ears. And then we see him as a young husband and father in the sequence when the daughters are being born. And then we see him as an older father, a little heaver, still with some black in his hair and beard and some energy in his steps, but a little slower. And now, in the “present day”, he is huge and grey haired and he moves like an aging athlete would. Still graceful, but slower. And you can see the toll that carrying the extra weight is taking on his body. That’s the thing I notice most when actors are in fat suits. They never feel like they are really carrying the weight naturally. Even if the fat suit weights close to the same as that much body mass would, it’s not distributed the same way, they aren’t walking with a little roll to it and constantly shifting their balance to take the weight off their feet, and all those things that you get when it is natural weight. And in this particular scene, watching Aamir really carrying all that extra weight around and the strain you see on his face, and the effort it takes Geeta to move him, that is all worth it.
Back to plot! This wrestling scene felt like too much to me. Like it was saying that the only way for women to advance was to beat up their father. Which, maybe in a different movie (like DDLJ), this might have felt true. But in this film, Aamir had been nothing but supportive, and just because she is now living away from home and learning new things, that is no reason for her to stop respecting him.
(I know it would be unbelievable and out of synch with the rest of the film, but isn’t there some small part of you that wants Kajol to get out of her father’s grasp by suddenly grabbing his arm and tossing him over her head to land in the mud instead of just waiting for him to let go?)
But this is another pothole the film avoids! Babita feels the same way I do, confronts her about how it isn’t fair for her to claim to be the “better” wrestler who no longer needs her father just because she beat him in a match, he is an old man now. And he gave them the training that got her into the National academy to begin with. Geeta isn’t hearing it, insists that she knows better now, it’s fine, she is getting “correct” training and she can’t wait for Babita to win and join her and get “correct” training too.
And so Geeta goes back to the academy without really talking with Aamir about everything that happened. And we get the “love song”. I was listening to the soundtrack, and thinking maybe this would be a flashback love story to Aamir and Sakshi. But instead, it is about the love between the 3 of them, Aamir and Geeta and Babita. And how they are all hurting now.
(I can’t find a video for just the one song, but it’s in here if you listen!)
By the way, poor Sakshi never gets a love song or really much of any plot. Which would bother me if the sister relationship weren’t so important. I want there to be some kind of female-female bond that is as important as the father-daughter bond, so it doesn’t feel like there is no one else in their life but Aamir. But since that is in place between the sisters, I am all right with how Sakshi is a little set aside. She is present in their life a reasonable amount, around in all the household scenes, giving her opinion on child rearing decisions, and occasionally stepping in between her daughters and husband. But I also believe the way they built up the special bond between Aamir and Geeta and Babita, not just father and daughter, but also Guru and Student.
I was already a little bit reassured with how Babita cut down Geeta’s growing confidence, that this wouldn’t turn into a “SuperWoman-Needs No Man!” kind of story. But it was so much better than that! They didn’t just avoid this particular “pothole”, they broke a whole new path around it.
Back at the National camp, Geeta’s coach keeps putting her up for competitions and she keeps losing them. And we cut between him yelling at her from the sidelines to “Defend! Defend!” and Babita winning her National competition with Aamir yelling at her “Attack! Attack!”
See, it’s not that Aamir has “natural wisdom” or that they should “respect their father” or anything like that. It’s that he loves his girls and can see their potential, the fire that made them commit to training way back when they were little. The National coach, he wants to tamp that fire down, he wants Geeta to be just like everyone else, to lower her expectations and relax her efforts. And he’s allowed her to give in to the pleasures of female life, friendship and shopping and Shahrukh Khan.
(Shahrukh really is such a pleasure)
But Geeta started this whole thing because she was running away from the seduction of female life, and running towards something greater. And Aamir understands that and is there to make sure she reaches her goal, to believe that she can reach her goal. He won’t let her settle for anything less than the most she can accomplish.
There is also a clear gender dynamic here. It’s not explicitly said, but Aamir is treating his girls the same way he would have treated his son, he wants them to be aggressive and ambitious and go after anything they want any way they can and as hard as they can. But the National Coach is coaching them to be, well, “girls”. Relax, settle, follow instructions and don’t think for yourself or want anything beyond what I tell you to want. Which sounds nice for a while, but after a while it eats away at your insides and breaks your heart.
Which is when Aamir steps in again! I am so happy with how he reunites with Geeta. It’s not because he gets angry or she gets angry, or because she is losing all her competitions. It’s because, after a lot of talking with Babita (this is the part of the film I mentioned in my No Spoiler review where I was really impressed by how the two young actresses were able to carry this whole section just between them), she finally calls her father. Not to beg forgiveness or give a big speech or ask advice. But just to cry and cry over the phone because her heart is breaking and she needs her “Papa” to make it all better.
And so Aamir returns to training her, a twist I did NOT see coming! And he returns to train her not because he is desperate for her to win a gold, or because she couldn’t succeed without him, but because his daughter is crying on the phone and needs him to make her feel better again. There’s one small moment which sort of encapsulates the whole problem, her coach wants her to fight in a lower weight class (she’s always fought in a slightly higher class before). Geeta tries to object, that she knows she can win at the higher weight, and he brushes it aside, telling her essentially that she isn’t good enough and should just give up on it. And then Geeta calls her father to tell him, and Aamir immediately responds with “Why should you switch classes? You can win in the higher class!” It’s not that Geeta needs her father to coach her, she just needs someone who loves and understand and listens to her and believes in her to coach her.
I have no idea if this is part of the true story at all (I could believe either way), but the idea of Aamir living in a tiny room in Delhi just so he can be close by if his daughters need him while training with this coach who doesn’t love them, it’s a little ridiculous but it is also delightful! And of course cousin Omkar comes along too, to sleep on the floor and massage Aamir’s legs and cook for him and all that.
And also of course, Geeta starts winning matches once she listens to her father and her own instincts instead of her coach. And she is selected to compete in the Commonwealth Games, which are conveniently taking place in Delhi this year, so Aamir can attend without needing to explain where he got the money for airfare and so on.
(They actually were in Delhi that year, which is lucky for the filmmakers. Although I am sure they would have figured out a way to make it work if they had taken place somewhere else)
The final matches have a nice build to them. The first match is all about proving the success of her new technique and confidence, with Aamir yelling advice from the stands, which she follows while ignoring her official coach. The second match is the challenge, especially because Aamir has now been restricted from the grounds of the training camp and they can only communicate by phone. He has her watch her previous match videos and tells her where she went wrong and what to change.
And then this is the most stressful match, almost tied all along, and finally decided on a coin toss, which she loses and then against all odds still wins the match. YAAAAAY! Only at the success press conference, after the coach has taken all the credit for himself, Geeta simply says that all her achievements are thanks to her “Papa”.
These matches are also a great way of giving Geeta agency. It’s not really all due to “Papa”. It’s due to her deciding to listen to “Papa” instead of her coach. We see over and over again the two older men giving her advice, and Geeta thinking about it and choosing which advice she trusts more. It’s ultimately all thanks to her choice, not their advice.
And then the final match turns it up a notch. Aamir and the coach have been having increasing battles, as the coach is threatened by how well Geeta is doing under his training, and Aamir is protective of his daughter’s future. Finally, because of Geeta’s statement at the press conference and the coach’s jealousy, he arranges for Aamir to be pulled aside while on the way to the final match and locked in a broom closet. EEEEEVIL!!!!! (also, my friend and I were joking in the theater “And now he breaks a window! And ziplines down! And then flips himself through a window into the stadium!” Because we have seen Dhoom 3 too many times)
This is one of those moments that I mentioned in my no spoilers review as being a bit bad. In case you are curious, the 4 moments I counted in total were:
1. the Bride’s speech that was just a bit unnatural sounding for a 14 year old
2. Aamir’s speech in this part that goes on and on about how Geeta has to win not just for herself but for all the other girls who think they can’t win and it’s like WE GET THE POINT AAMIR!!!! YOU CAN STOP TALKING NOW! WE ALL WATCHED THE “SATTAR MINUTE” SPEECH IN CHAK DE ALREADY!!!!
3. And then the last two moments are the press conference with the Australian opponent in the final match who is just cartoonishly snearing and Australian.
4. And this moment, when the coach literally peeks out from behind a pillar and laughs evilly as he watches Aamir be pulled away.
Similarly to the Bride’s speech, I don’t like the execution, but I like the end result. In the end, Aamir is locked in a closet while Geeta wins her toughest match. She really does win it entirely on her own, she doesn’t “need” Aamir there, she is a hero in her own right and on her own. And, on the flipside, Aamir doesn’t care that he isn’t part of her victory (no duh, she wins). He just wants to know that she won, that India won, and if he doesn’t get to see it, that’s fine.
The ending is basically a rip-odd of Saala Khadoos. Her coach is taking credit for everything, when she sees Aamir enter on the outskirts of the stadium. She runs away from her coach, and all the media follow her, and hands the gold medal to her father, just like she handed him the first 50 rupee bill she received at her first match, and he gives it back to her, putting it around her neck. And then Aamir hugs both his girls to him in celebration.
And again, disaster avoided! If Aamir had kept the gold medal, if she had touched his feet in gratitude, if it had been anything besides this simple exchange, it would have felt like too much, like she thought all of her successes were only due to him. But instead it felt like the normal gratitude towards a father who believed in you and supported your dreams, and the normal pride in a father towards his child.
Really, just a lovely movie! No romance, no violence, just a story about a family and their exceptional children.
(And thank goodness they just put the audio of this song, not the video, out over the end credits. Because there were children in the room and this is TOO SCARY)