How do you engage audiences with a movie about young girls training to be wrestlers in Haryana, and how do you ensure people have a laugh even when you are talking about gender issues in a patriarchal society?

In an interview with Scroll.in, Dangal director Nitesh Tiwari revealed the challenges of managing a balance between gravitas and humour and working with young actors. Dangal is Tiwari’s third film after Chillar Party (2011; co-directed with Vikas Bahl) and Bhoothnath Returns (2014). Dangal is based on an idea by former UTV Movies employee Divya Rao and is based on the real-life story of Mahavir Singh Phogat and his daughters, the wrestling champions Babita Kumari and Geeta. The December 23 release stars Aamir Khan as Phogat, Sakshi Tanwar as his wife Daya, and Fatima Sana Shaikh and Zaira Wasim as the young and older Geeta and Sanya Malhotra and Suhani Bhatnagar as the young and older Babita.

Some of the most seasoned filmmakers have spoken about the challenges of working with children. After ‘Chillar Party’ and ‘Bhootnath Returns’ comes ‘Dangal’, and you seem to get along fine with kids and young adults.
I love kids. Not just working with them, but I am genuinely fond of them. And somewhere it reflects in my work. I don’t make a conscious effort to write for or about kids. It just happens to be there on my mind. Working with kids is a mixture of pleasure and pain.

Honestly, the very young ones are a bit difficult to get manage. It is challenging to get them to perform unless they are born actors. When you are working with them, you always need to have a plan B and C and D because A will not work. Kids will get cranky, they will scratch their heads, they will get sleepy and they do not really care about your film. You have to find ways and means to keep them interested and work with their strengths. For Dangal, the kids were older, 12 and 14. They are extremely mature and knew what was required of them. It made my job much easier.

How do you cast young actors in a film that has them in key roles?
It is hugely difficult to find the perfect fit in a child actor. You have to see the potential in the kid. When you audition an adult, chances are you can see your character in the actor. He can give you the experience you are looking for. A kid will never do that. And you have to modify your character to suit the kid. The trick is to test him in all possible conditions and with all the variables. But then again, a child may be supremely confident during the auditions but will succumb to pressure while shooting. It is important to put them through the real situations.

If there is a star involved, you have to make them meet to see how they react. Young children do not care for continuity and are often in denial. They will scratch their tummies and when you point it out, they will deny it. Fortunately the girls in Dangal were very good at grasping and following instructions.

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The song ‘Haanikaarak Bapu’ from ‘Dangal’.

What was it about the Mahavir Singh Phogat story that appealed to you the most?
I was most touched by the personal triumph. It is a human story with great value. And I realised it in the first four or five lines itself...

What were those lines in the pitch?
A story of an ex-wrestler in Haryana who trained his girls to become world champions. There was a lot of imagery that flashed in my mind. A place like Haryana with its notoriously skewed sex ratio. A man fighting the odds to train his daughters in a male-dominated sport in the 2000s. It was a mouth-watering premise for any story writer. I wanted to know more and told the producers, count me in.

Comparisons with ‘Chak De! India’ are inevitable. But Shimit Amin’s film is about female hockey players and their individual and collective triumphs, and not only about the star Shah Rukh Khan. How much of ‘Dangal’ is about Aamir Khan, who has taken centrestage in the promotions?
It is not about Aamir the star. It is just about the bond that a father shares with his daughters and how he fights the world for it. It was an absolute pleasure to work with a lead actor who was so dedicated and committed to the project that he put aside everything else to get under the skin of the character. He was completely unassuming during the shoot. There were times when he would slip in quietly and sit with us, chatting, observing. He was never the star on the set. Dangal is a beautiful family drama with wrestling as the backdrop.

Take us through the journey of ‘Dangal’ from the pitch to the filming.
After the initial discussions, I met Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari and heard their story. It sounded very interesting. I had seen mud wrestling in Uttar Pradesh, where I come from. But I had never seen mat wrestling in my life before. And when I saw how these girls were being trained, I was impressed.

It is a very rigorous exercise. It is so easy for us to sit out there and pass comments on their performance when we have no idea about the hard work and training that goes into the making of these wrestlers. I met more people, spoke with the family members of Geeta and Babita, and realised that this could be a really nice, touching story.

Sometimes, a subject like this tends to get heavy. We wanted to avoid that. No one wants to come for a film and get preached to. So we wanted to add layers of humour and pleasantness to a very meaningful film.

Were there moments when you felt you had managed to achieve what you set out to do?
It happened throughout the making of Dangal. When we finished writing and were done with our final draft, I told my team of assistant directors that if we can achieve even 80 per cent of what we have written, we have a very good product on our hands. And I think we may have surpassed what we have written.

There are so many moments I am pleased about. Most importantly, this is the first time I was working without references. It gave me greater satisfaction to shoot and showcase the wrestling matches with the girls exactly the way I wanted to. There is a certain stamp of authenticity in the matches which I am happy about.

Nitesh Tiwari.
Nitesh Tiwari.