After raking in more than $50m (£41m) in box office collections in three weeks, Dangal (a Hindi word which means a wrestling competition), has been named the top grossing Bollywood movie of all time.
The film, directed by Nitesh Tiwari, is led by Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who plays a portly, ageing former wrestler. The two leading ladies are no sari-clad pretty lasses, but muscular athletes who get down and dirty in mud bowls.
The film is not set in Europe or America, Bollywood’s favourite fantasy venues, but in the dusty hinterland of Haryana in north India, a state with shoddy gender indices.
In the past five years Bollywood has produced a slew of biopics on Indian sporting heroes like cricketers Azharuddin and MS Dhoni, Olympic sprinter Milkha Singh and Olympic medal winner, the female boxer Mary Kom, played by Quantico star Priyanka Chopra.
But none have met with the resounding box office success of Dangal.
For Aamir Khan, who helmed the 2002 hit Lagaan, a story of peasants who challenge their British rulers to a game of cricket in order to escape a punitive tax – the film won an Oscar nomination and made it to Time magazine’s list of top 25 sports films – it is a glorious return to another inspirational sports drama .
In Dangal, he plays Mahavir Singh Phogat, a state champion wrestler from Haryana, who has given up his small town job to be a full time coach for his four daughters, all wrestling champions.
His eldest daughter, Geeta Phogat won India’s first ever gold medal in wrestling in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. She also qualified for the 2016 Olympic Summer Games, a first for an Indian female wrestler.
Phogat’s second daughter, Babita Kumari, is a Commonwealth Games gold medallist too; his third daughter Ritu Phogat has won gold in the Commonwealth Wrestling Championship in 2016.
The first family of Indian wrestling makes for a remarkable story.
The racy fictional transformation on screen has the familiar Bollywood tropes: deep family bonds, surmounting hurdles to snag a blood and sweat win that melts the audiences’ hearts, songs, and a high-pitched theatrical climax.
Critics have called it a crowd pleasing, hugely entertaining sports drama with well choreographed wrestling sequences that manage to hold audience interest for the entire 160-minute runtime of the film.
“In India wrestling is seen primarily as a masculine sport. The Phogat sisters broke the deeply entrenched male bastion,” says Rudraneil Sengupta, author of Enter the Dangal: Travels Through India’s Wrestling Landscape which has also recorded the Phogat family’s story.
India’s wrestling gods include Krishna who duelled and vanquished his evil uncle Kamsa in a wrestling arena.
The Ramayana’s simian deity Hanuman, with a heavy mace or weight, is a lucky talisman for many wrestlers across north India. It’s seen as a native all male sport.
“The whole concept of an akhara (wrestling school) was about men. So that space itself was unavailable to women”, says Shamya Dasgupta, senior editor, Wisden India and author of Bhiwani Junction, a book on male boxers from Haryana.
Whilst almost every village in northern and western India has an akhara, there are “unspoken rules” that prevent women from hanging out at them, points out Sengupta.
Women don’t even join the audience at “dangals” or tournaments in villages or cities. Neither are they allowed to join akharas, leave alone train with men in a body contact sport like wrestling.
Of late though, akharas across northern India allow a small number of women to enter them and take up training. Those in villages and smaller towns remain closed to women even now.
The idea that women wrestlers provide a “freak show” in public changed with the international success of the Phogat sisters.
“In many villages in Haryana women cover their faces in veils and you had the Phogat girls run down the villages in shorts and tees, which must have taken exceptional courage”, says Sengupta.
The Phogat sisters and their father were shown the way by freestyle wrestler, Chandgi Ram, an Asian Games gold medallist from the 1970s. Ram, who is based out of Delhi, had introduced his two daughters to the game.
As Phogat’s mentor, he encouraged him to train his daughters too.
Mahavir Phogat settled down in a dusty farming village of Balali in Haryana and turned his home into an akhara for his daughters and led them to success.
“Dangal is a big boost to wrestling in the public mind”, says Sengupta.
The film has Khan metamorphose to play a middle-aged and obese Haryanvi speaking the dialect of the village.
He is shown in the film as a tough patriarch but one with an open mind. He chops off the hair of his little girls to boyish crops, and dresses them in shorts to get them into the dust bowls of the akhara to train.
Geeta Phogat in an interview said her father was actually a tougher and meaner coach than Aamir Khan’s character in the film who is shown to be ruthless with the training schedule of his little girls.
“In a community where little girls see no future beyond marriage, your father wants you to do something meaningful”, says a child bride character in the film to the young Phogat sisters.
The filmmaker and producer went through long auditions to sign up fresh faces to play the Phogat sisters.
Zaira Wasim, a Kashmiri, and Suhani Bhatnagar from Delhi play the childhood Phogat sisters.
Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra play the older champions, Geeta and Babita, in the film and have very quickly become social media darlings.
Four states across north India have offered tax concessions to Dangal to play in cinemas as part of their campaign to end female foeticide and educate girls.
The story of the Phogat sisters is an “incredible one, made more interesting because of their tremendous success” says Dasgupta.
“One hopes that the film would “encourage more and more parents – from rural and urban India – to give their daughters a chance to have a career in sports”.