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Unexpected Heroines Of An Indian Box Office Hit: Female Wrestlers

Actor Aamir Khan plays former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, training his on-screen daughters in the art of wrestling, in the film <em>Dangal</em>.
Aamir Khan Productions
Actor Aamir Khan plays former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, training his on-screen daughters in the art of wrestling, in the film Dangal.

One of the biggest-ever overseas successes for Disney is grounded in a real-life story out of India.

The film, released in late December, is called Dangal – Hindi for "wrestling competition." It follows two sisters born in the highly traditional north Indian state of Haryana — a place where women often veil their faces and where in 2015 India's prime minister launched a campaign against a longstanding practice of terminating a pregnancy because the fetus is female. With the coaching of their father, the girls — Geeta and Babita — grew up to become world-class wrestlers.

In the past four weeks Dangal has reportedly become the highest-ever grossing film in Hindi-language cinema, earning more than $70 million in ticket sales, according to the Bollywood box office site The film is being distributed in other locations, including North America, where it's passed $10 million in revenues.

The movie might never have been made had it not been for Divya Rao. Then part of Disney India's creative team, Rao had a passing familiarity withthe wrestling family. An article she saw in a newspaper sports section stuck with her. At her urging, Disney picked up the story, teamed with Indian writer and director Niteshi Tiwari and produced the runaway hit.

The star power of one of Bollywood's most popular actors, Aamir Khan, helps account for the movie's powerful draw. Khan plays Geeta and Babita's potbellied father, former wrestling champion Mahavir Singh Phogat, whose youthful dreams of gold medal glory had eluded him.

Early in the film, he tells his pregnant wife, "What I couldn't do, our son will. He will win gold for our country."

That anticipated baby boy turns out to be a girl, and Phogat would eventually have three more daughters.

Those initially dashed hopes are reignited years later when his eldest two girls beat two boys to a pulp for calling them names. Realizing their athletic potential, Phogat flouts taboos about women competing in the sporting arena and sets about molding Geeta and Babita into wrestling champions.

All of India knows how this story ends: Geeta and Babita respectively took a gold and silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and have been winning international accolades ever since.

But what intrigued the film's co-writer and director Nitesh Tiwari is: "Why in India is there so much bias against having a girl child?"

"Why is there so much desperation only to want a boy?" Tiwari asks. "The movie aims at trying to change this mindset — that a girl is as a beautiful a gift of God as a boy."

The film sprawls across Haryana's rural landscape and sparkles with engaging characters, including a nephew who narrates the film and provides comic relief. Tiwari says the creators consciously deployed plenty of humor because he says the "issues are heavy," and the "audience should be enlightened as well as entertained." But Tiwari also hewed closely to a delicate family dynamic, including a sometimes contentious relationship between Geeta and her father.

"And those fights still happen between the father and the daughter," Tiwari jokes.

India was perhaps primed for a film that grappled with the struggles of girls. The treatment of young women has been a central theme in the country's politics and media in recent years — forced by horrific and high-profile incidents like the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012.

Indian film critic and journalist Anna M.M. Vetticad says Indian movie-goers are eager to see women on the screen portrayed in a new light. She says the success of Dangal is excellent news "for those who believe that the hero stalking the heroine, extreme objectification of women, all of the things which have been Hindi film staples so far, are not the only thing that the entire audience wants."

The film's release also follows the 2016 Rio Olympics, where women on India's national team won the country's only two medals – including female wrestler Sakshi Malik, also from Haryana, who brought home a bronze.

Over a half-century athletic career, Indian badminton champion Damayanti Tambay says she senses a shift in her country, with female athletes venerated in a way they haven't been before. She says the female Olympians returning from Rio were welcomed home as "goddesses."

Babita Kumari Phogat, one of those Olympians, credits her father for getting her and her sisters "out from under the veil" that cloaks many girls in Haryana. The patriarch of the first family of Indian wresting has in fact trained all four of his daughters in the sport and contributed to Haryana's reputation as a breeding ground for India's best wrestlers.

But the family's biggest victory, Babita says, is inspiring parents to believe in their daughters.

This is a victory for the girls and women who were kept behind those veils, she says, and the victims of "female feticide in Haryana."

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Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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