In Rocky, Rocky Balboa ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Milkha Singh sweated buckets in Ladakh’s Nubra Valley. No sports biopic is complete without the inspirational training montage, which is second only to the climactic victory lap. Nearly always accompanied by soaring music or a song, these sequences are as sacrosanct as prayer.
In his 2016 movie Dangal, Nitesh Tiwari treated the mandatory scenes of huffing-puffing that precede medals and glory with imagination and irreverence. Dangal is based on the remarkable story of how Haryana’s Mahavir Singh Phogat bucked the assumptions of his conservative milieu to mould his daughters into wrestling champions. A skilful blend of melodrama and sports movie conventions, Dangal was wildly popular not only in India but also in China, which warmed to the themes of sacrifice, life-long dedication and nationalistic spirit.
Chinese viewers also possibly appreciated Aamir Khan’s portrayal of a patriarch who is also an unrelentingly strict coach. As Indian athletes gear up to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, Mahavir Singh’s mantra – train, train, train – will surely prove valuable.
Khan’s Mahavir Singh is a small-time wrestler who hopes to pass on his ambition to represent India in the sport to his sons. Unfortunately for Mahavir, his wife Daya (Sakshi Tanwar) pops out four daughters.
A schoolyard spat convinces Mahavir that his older daughters Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) have the physical and mental toughness required to be fighters in the ring. The brawny, laconic gent becomes an unlikely feminist. He ignores criticism and gossip to push his girls into an arena dominated by men. But first, they need to be trained.
Mahavir puts his daughters through the wringer. Geeta and Babita watch in horror as Mahavir morphs into a nightmare dad, forcing them to wake up before the sun, jog through fields and swim in the local canal. Mahavir is unmoved by their tears and pleas, knowing only too well that discipline and sacrifice are the cornerstones of excellence in sport.
The reaction of the deeply reluctant girls is hilariously captured by the song Haanikarak Bapu. Pritam’s tune, sung beautifully by Sarwar Khan and Sartaz Khan Barna, has some of Amitabh Bhattacharya’s most brilliantly inventive lyrics. Father, you are bad for our health, take pity on us children, the lyrics plead. This is torture, plain torture, O Mogambo, even Hindi film villains are better than you!
The song plays out in the background, and is interspersed in the movie with snatches of dialogue. The wacky lyrics and comedic treatment of the training montage take the edge off Mahavir’s merciless actions.
Father knows best, of course. Whether preparing for a career in sport or swotting for an exam under the vigilant eye of a strict parent, the song communicates the anguish of children forced to achieve something they don’t yet know they are capable of.