This movie really really holds up. It’s a silly action film and it isn’t ashamed of that, but it also talks about caste, Polio, political use of religion, and other serious things that most films don’t discuss.
When I first watched Dabangg, back about 6 years, my first thought was “wow I enjoyed that movie!” and then my second thought (as always) was “why did I enjoy that movie?” and my third thought was “I think this is secretly the most socially progressive film in years”.
(Also, one of the all time classic posters)
And then I watched it over and over again with large groups of people who were just there for cheering the fight scenes and booing the villains and so on, and I never really got a chance to go back and focus and see if my initial impression was correct, it really was a super progressive film. Until this week, when our discussion on my Feminist Film Criticism post got me thinking about it again. So I went back, and I watched it, and by golly it IS the most socially progressive film in years! Even more so now, actually, as the film industry has gotten increasingly regressive. Or rather, half of it has. The crowd pleaser big release half, somehow it’s gotten scared off of giving these messages. While the other half, the multiplex wooptidupty (spelling? somehow that word is not in spellcheck) half, has stopped even caring about these messages, has moved on to a whole other level of messages. There is just nothing like this out there, giving you a rollicking good time and at the same time addressing the day to day issues of India, not the day to day issues of the top 1% of India, and also not selling the fantasy that those issues don’t exist, or even are “good” things, “traditional” things, “Indian” things.
This film is a throwback in a lot of ways. A throwback to the earliest era of film when heroes dealt with massive social problems, not by throwing punches at them, or long speeches, but by simple modeling of the correct behavior. It has more in common with Sujata than with Wanted. And Sujata has more in common with this than 3 Idiots or one of those other “new” social message movies that sometimes seem like they are 70% message and only 30% movie.
The thing is, messages work best when they are subconscious. If it is obvious and in your face, it’s easy to deal with intellectually, to ignore, to forget, to rationalize. And it also kind of normalizes the “bad” behavior. It says “look, I have to give you a whole speech about why this is bad, because the assumption is you don’t realize that, most people think this is okay until they hear my speech, and if you thought it was okay, well, you are just like most people and shouldn’t even feel guilty.” That’s what Secret Superstar felt like to me, it was giving the audience a big lecture on how domestic violence is bad, and accepting the basic premise that until now domestic violence has been accepted and “normal”. I don’t like that! It gives you an out, you individually watching this movie thinking “well, that guy didn’t realize how bad it was until he saw this story, I shouldn’t feel bad for thinking the same thing”, and also “you” the greater society that can think “oh, okay, there are a few small rays of light in this story but it is mostly bleak and that’s just normal and we shouldn’t expect any huge changes for years and years and decades and decades.”
What Dabangg does is say “our hero is flawed, but not so flawed he believes in the caste system, because that is so crazily out of date and ridiculous, no one should believe in it now.” But it does it in a way that still feels “real”, it’s not presenting some impossible future where all the problems of society are solved. It’s just saying “yeah, a Brahmin fell in love with and married a low caste woman, so what?” And it has that same Brahmin casually acknowledge the obvious cynicism of politicians referencing religion to get votes and fool the crowds. And it even throws in a message about polio vaccinations!
(Polio! It used to be a thing in India! There was a whole campaign. Not a big exciting fancy one, but a slow attrition convincing people one by one thing)
It’s not the “sexy” social messages other movies like dealing with, we aren’t getting something like Dear Zindagi with some kind of navel gazing “I am torn with guilt because my parents didn’t love me enough” thing (not to take anything away from Dear Zindagi, part of what I loved about that movie is how start to finish, the filmmakers showed that they knew it was a niche concern and a film for only a small part of the audience). We definitely aren’t getting a message that falls in line with a major politically promoted campaign (TOILET!!! Still mad at you). And there is no unthinking flag waving just to get cheers from the audience. No flag waving at all. Gandhi’s photo is in the background at the police station, and that is it. No trying to build sympathy for our “noble” heroes of the state either, the police are unrepentantly corrupt. Our hero is a good man, but not a good police officer. And the film doesn’t even try to pretend that those things necessarily go together, or even aren’t in conflict at times. The whole world is bad, the best you can do is try to do the best you can do moment by moment.
(See how Salman is breaking the usual “hero” rule and actual enjoying dancing with the item girl? At least a little? See, it’s shades of grey here, no one is perfect in this world)
And then there’s the family stuff!!!! This is the kind of family conflict we don’t get in the post-90s era. This is the real stuff! Love isn’t enough to fix everything, some families just fight and never stop fighting. Some parents play favorites, some kids don’t get over their anger, some brothers don’t always get along. Some little brothers aren’t always obedient, some big brothers aren’t always protective. But that doesn’t make them not a hero either. We used to see this all the time, Deewar, Trishul, even Chatrapathi in Telugu, has this kind of complicated messy stuff. But in the Hindi films, no. It’s all happy happy all the time, or else it is treated so lightly that no one feels anything (Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Gori Tere Pyar Main). To have a family conflict that is a real conflict, not drama springing up out of nowhere and quickly resolved but legitimate serious simmering hurts, that is unique.
(This is not exactly a serious look at a young man rebelling against his father)
And on top of all of this, the songs! The fights!!! The SALMAN!!!! This is somehow simultaneously the most socially aware film in years, and the most whistle-worthy film in years. The underlying structure is that family conflict, and the deeper flavoring is that spice of social justice, but the addictive taste on top of it all, what hits your palate first, is the pure Masala-ness! Happy unembarrassed masala. Not post-modern “ooo, look how we are re-appropriating the style of the past” Masala, but the actual real stuff.
And where the heck did all this come from? Moimeme (I think) in a comment mentioned that original the script was entirely serious. I took a brief zip through the internet to find more details on that, no luck, but I believe it anyway. First because Moimeme is very reliable, and second because you can see that in the final product. There is a really kind of tragic family drama hidden behind it all. And besides, look at Abhinav Kashyap’s background! Wrote dialogue for Manorama Six Feet Under, assisted Mani Ratnam, and younger brother of Anurag Kashyap. Oh, and grew up in the UP himself, the same kind of dusty place this film is set in. So yes, that is the script. And then the Salman sparkle came on top of it, gave us a hero with a mustache, one-liners, and sunglasses. Gave as a villain to hiss, and a fight scene to cheer. Made sure that the audience wouldn’t just be getting “lessons”, the would be getting a film to go along with it. And that it wouldn’t be a story that was only heard by a handful of people in an art theater, but which swept the width and breadth of India.
So, what is this story and why is it so remarkable?
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There are a lot of “messages” here, and none of them are ones that translate easily. Most films, the whole plot and half the dialogue is in “English” is watered down and clear and so on for the global audience. This film, the dialogue and the plot are all “Indian”. At the beginning of the film, Vinod Khanna pays an astrologer to do a full horoscope for his son will-be-Arbaaz. Will-be-Salman is angry at this, because his stepfather paid for his own son but not Salman, and grabs the horoscope and shreds it. To a non-Indian audience, this is kind of whatever, the lesson is “brotherly conflict that will remain in adulthood.”
But it’s a horoscope! A Holy item in Hinduism, and paying for having one drawn up at a young age is a symbol of their Brahmin-ness. And Salman is rejecting all of that, shredding it like the sugar cane from their fields (the sugar cane fields which will soon be sold to help build up the town). And he is rejecting his brotherly relationship as well. And his son-ly relationship. Maybe in films from elsewhere it is common to see a young boy talk back to his father, but you never ever see that in Indian films! And you never see a younger brother enjoy taunting his older brother, and the older not put up with it. So right away, in the first few scenes, we have a rejection of traditional Brahminism/Hinduism, a rejection of blindly following relationship “rules”, and the established authorities.
Oh, and that’s not even getting into the most radical statement! Remember how I said this film presents a version of society that doesn’t even acknowledge anyone would still be so “wrong”, that’s how unacceptable it is? So Vinod Khanna is old-fashioned enough to want a horoscope done. But he married Dimple, a widow, and adopted her son. Because being against widow-remarriage, wanting to shun widows, all of that is so incredibly out of date that not even a conservative Brahmin type would think about it. And if you, in the audience, are still against it, well then you are tragically behind the times and should feel very foolish. Kind of like if you were a teenage girl and showed up to school in a pink shirt and were told “oh, haven’t you heard? No one is wearing pink any more, it’s so last year, we are all wearing orange.” Just makes you feel foolish and like you should hurry up and switch to orange before anyone notices.
(Very different from Salman’s other widow-remarriage movie, but even this one was still better than, say, Water. It was modern day, and it had Amitabh, Voice of Everything, saying widow remarriage was good, not just hitting us over the head with out of date versions of the issue)
That’s how all the most radical statements are given in the film. The surface plot progresses in fits and starts and fight scenes. Salman grows up to be a cop, he chases down robbers and steals their loot to share with his fellow police and take for himself (like I said, not a perfect cop). The robbers were in the pay of Sonu Sood, the “youth leader” for the local politician Anupam Kher. Anupam Kher is tired of his hijinks and wants him to be a bit more under control. Not as a moral issue, just as a matter of wanting the respect he is owed and to avoid investigation and scandal. Salman frames Sonu for selling adulterated liquor (he makes illegal liquor, sure, just not adulterated), Sonu is furious with him and gets back at Salman by convincing his little brother Arbaaz to work for Sonu’s group. He tricks Arbaaz into delivering a bomb which kills Anupam Kher. Salman is now furious, but Arbaaz goes to him and explains he didn’t know what he was doing, and Sonu not only tricked him, but set him up to be desperate for money by burning the family factory which injured Vinod. The two brothers reunite, and take down Sonu together.
That’s the action part of the script. But the important part, that is a whole other story going on at the same time. During a chase scene, Salman catches a glimpse of Sonakshi Sinha and falls in love immediately. He tells his mother Dimple that he is in love and wants to get married and tries to convince her to leave the house with him and live with him and his wife instead. They are already sort of living in separate households while in the same place. Vinod and Arbaaz go to work together at the struggling little factory, Salman works at the police station and brings back money for his mother that is not shared with the rest of the household. Arbaaz has his own romance too, he is in love with the daughter of the poor school teacher and she with him. But she knows he will never stand up to his father and insist on marrying her, so she is ready to say good-bye. The stories cross for the first time when Arbaaz tries to steal Salman’s money to use for his wedding. Dimple catches him, and the stories cross again when Dimple dies soon after and all three (Vinod, Arbaaz, Salman) are grief stricken. But rather than coming together in grief, it separates them. Salman declares he has nothing to do with them and is moving into his own house and Vinod doesn’t stop him. Later, Salman sees Arbaaz preparing for his wedding, and decides it is time for his own wedding, before Arbaaz.
This is the bit I mentioned in my feminism post. Salman goes to see Sonakshi and matter of factly tells her that he wants to marry her, and she says no. He accepts that and asks if she will ever marry, she says only when her father dies. So Salman says he will wait. But now he can’t wait, he wants to be married before Arbaaz. So he goes and talks to her father. And blames him, tells him that because he is such a drunk and layabout, his daughter feels the need to take care of him instead of her own happiness. For once in his life, he should act like a father and convince her to marry Salman, to choose the better life that he can give her. And this is also when he explicitly mentions that he is a Brahmin.
Now, in a strict sense, this is “bad”, because Salman is talking to Sonakshi’s father rather than respecting her wishes and letting her make this decision for herself. But taken in context, OMG is it awesome! First, placing the blame and the responsibility on her father. Salman isn’t going to her and trying to guilt her into choosing between them. And even worse, he isn’t saying “I need you to make your father stop drinking”. No, he is going to her father and saying “this whole thing is your fault, and it’s your responsibility to fix it, not hers.”
And the “Brahmin” drop is so perfect here. He isn’t bragging, he is acknowledging a reality. Sonakshi being able to marry into a Brahmin household has real practical value. She can walk down the street unmolested and unlooked at (we saw that earlier, the way people would stare at her and she carefully pretended not to see). She will be seen for the wonderful person she is, not just her label. And Salman is the type of guy who is born a Brahmin and wants to marry a potter. Not that he is better because he is a Brahmin, but he is better because he is a Brahmin who is rejecting that status without a second thought and seeing the true value of things.
So I don’t mind that it all works out. That Sonakshi’s father kills himself so she can be married, and that Salman just shows up at her house and takes her away without even telling her his name or asking how she feels. Because he knows how she feels, she wants this but can’t say she wants it, so it is up to other people to make it happen for her.
That “she can’t say she wants it” sounds bad. It’s not in a “oh the women, the all want a strong man to take charge!” way, that’s not how I meant it. It is because she is so oppressed and so status-less in society, she hasn’t even learned how to let herself be happy, let herself ask for things. She can’t go with Salman, not until he says “go with me”, because she can’t risk seeming to want it, can’t risk the potential backlash on her for being above her station. She can’t say anything, not straight out, and so their romance is all in little moments, little tests for him to show her respect, and her to show him the bravery that is hidden deep inside.
(She has her own “Dabangg”)
They first meet when he stumbles into her courtyard, actually landing in a pile of pots. So he knows she is a potter, knows from the beginning. She is changing and he sees her without her dupatta. He immediately looks away and asks her if she is married. And then if her father is looking for a husband for her. When she answers “no” to both, he ends by warning her to stay inside as there is a gunfight about to happen, and walks away. It’s a tiny interaction, and just the bare facts of it could look like another creepy stalker style romance. He catches her changing, immediately decides to marry her, yuck! But it’s all in how it is done, and being aware of the massive status difference between the two of them. He catches her, yes, but immediately looks away. And immediately starts talking marriage. In a matter-of-fact way, not like “observe how noble I am, a ranking police officer wanting to marry the likes of you!”, but in a “you are a woman, I am a man, of course we should get married” way. And her response, it’s not much, but she is speaking clearly and looking at him, not scared or crying or running. it tells him that this is a brave strong woman, his match.
He goes back to see her and pretends to want to buy a pot. And she overcharges him. He tries to get the upperhand by paying even more, she insists on giving him two pots since he paid so much and she has no change. He breaks them, to show his generosity, she not only insists on giving him replacements, but carries them out and puts them in his jeep so he can’t break them again. It’s a little dance, she can’t directly confront him because she has so little power, but she is finding a way to show her independence. And he could directly confront her, and is choosing not to, showing that he knows the right way to use his power.
One of my favorite moments is when he proposes. He is sitting looking at her pots and claw around, and picks up a little figurine, asks if she made it, and when she says “yes”, he says “you are an artist”. That’s radical! Taking a caste practice which is traditionally considered “low”, work which an educated man might look down on, heck, which he might look down on merely because it is a woman doing it and women aren’t supposed to work, and calling it “art” instead. Not as a compliment, but because that is sincerely how he sees her. That’s when I fell in love with “Chulbul Panday” and it might have been when Sonakshi’s character did too.
It’s not just that moment, it’s straight through. He finds her pulling her drunken father from a dungheap, and jumps out of his clean police jeep to help her. He hears her father call her “errota” (name for a bad woman I guess?) and barely acknowledges it. He truly does not care, about any of that.
And their life post marriage, that’s where it falls into place. Because Sonakshi suddenly finds her strength. Now she has status, security, and all that strength she had to hide before, now it can come out. And Salman is delighted!!! But not surprised. When she teases him a little on their wedding night, he smiles at her, but he doesn’t seem shocked, he knew this strength was there all along, it just couldn’t come out until she had more safety to express it.
If you ignore everything else, Dabangg 1 and 2 are an amazing story of what happens when the socially oppressed are saved. The oppression, it’s not just external, it’s internal. Salman is constantly pointing out how stern Sonakshi always looks, how she doesn’t know how to smile. That is what she has been taught, life has never given her a chance to smile, a chance to hope. Salman has to force that on her, because she is too stunted to grab it for herself. Not really, she can keep her respect in the little ways, but she can’t risk the big things. In the same way, for instance, I wouldn’t want to say “oh, if a scheduled caste wants an education, they can just apply for funding”. No! That’s like step 50. Step 1 is people going to their neighborhoods and telling them about the funding available to them, helping them fill out applications, and so on and so on.
But once Sonakshi has that status, is beginning to learn through the loving support of her husband to trust herself in the world, she blossoms. Just in Dabangg 1, we see her go from never speaking up, to gently teasing on their wedding night. To gaining more and more confidence on their honeymoon, to finally giving her opinion on the deepest part of Salman’s issues, his family, with confidence and clarity and without fear. And Salman listens!!!! He wasn’t putting on an act, he didn’t want a grateful compliant wife, he wanted the fire he could sense inside of her, he likes that, he wants her opinion on things, he wants her to share every part of his life. And in Dabangg 2, it is more and more. She teases him, and fights with him, and runs the household, and orders him to go out and defeat the enemies for her. And again, this pleases him. This is the wife he wanted, this is what he always knew was inside and just needed a chance to come out.
(This is why he is dancing for her here, he just wants her to learn how to be happy, to let herself be happy)
Sonakshi’s story is what really resonates for me, but the Vinod-Arbaaz-Salman-Dimple story isn’t nothing either. This is a father-son-brother conflict we never see. It’s not that they hate each other, it’s that they love each other and don’t know how to say it. Because loving your family isn’t as simple as “their my family, I have to love them!” You have to figure out exactly what “love” means in your family.
Dimple gives an early version of it to child Salman. Vinod loves him because he gave him his name, he gave him his house, he is raising him alongside his own biological son. But Salman, at age 10 or so when we first meet him, is getting too old for this simple version of love. He wants more than that, words or signs or something. And when he doesn’t see it, not the way he is expecting to see it (Vinod treating him identically to Arbaaz), he rejects Vinod entirely. And Vinod does the same to him, he doesn’t see the same kind of respect from Salman that he gets from Arbaaz, and so he rejects what Salman does give him.
When we re-enter the household after the boys are grown, Salman is still living there and providing money. And Vinod is letting him live there. But their interactions are constant little digs at each other, no real talk. They still love each other, deep deep down, because they are in the same house, but they don’t know how to bridge the gap beyond that.
Salman and Arbaaz are in the same position. Salman yells at Arbaaz for being lazy, for doing nothing, and constantly bosses him around, and Arbaaz just takes it. Salman claims Arbaaz is worthless and he doesn’t care for him, Arbaaz claims to not respect Salman, but their behavior is quite like that, Salman is helping to pay expenses for arbaaz along with the rest of the household. Arbaaz is obeying what Salman tells him to do. There is love there too.
This is what families are like in real life and almost never in films. It isn’t black and white, it is back and forth, more love or less love or misunderstandings or anger that disappears when things change. The first time I watched this film, the reunion between Vinod and Salman kind of bothered me. But on subsequent watches, no! It completely makes sense! Salman learns that Vinod is dying in the hospital. He goes to him and calls him “Papa” for the first time. And Vinod blesses him and calls him “son”. And Salman laugh/cries and says “is that all you wanted? for me to call you Papa?” But, yes! That is all he wanted! He just never knew how to ask. Both of them were waiting for the other to claim the relationship, Salman to be treated as a son and Vinod to be treated as a father. But they didn’t want to make the first step. That’s real! A lot more real than if Vinod truly had never been able to forgive Salman, or if Salman truly had been pleased to learn Vinod was dying.
This is an odd thing to say, but I think this film feels “unrealistic” to people because of how realistic it is. It’s a love story that shows how a love story between a small town Brahmin and a lower caste woman would play out. It’s a family conflict that ends with a whimper not a bang, like most family conflicts do. It’s a “villain” who is often more silly than scary. And in between there are physics defying fights and one-liners and gorgeous songs. And it all comes together to make a film that says an awful lot in a very small amount of time. The filmmakers somehow squeezed in to two hours what it has just taken me 4500 words to even begin to describe.