Children of another dangal

The other day at the gym, one of the televisions had been turned to a channel showing the Bollywood movie Dangal. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is loosely based on the lives of Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler from Haryana, and his two daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, whom he trained to become India’s first world-class female wrestlers. While the story and actors were delightful, I couldn’t help being struck by the irony of two girls from rural Haryana becoming successful wrestlers and empowered women — only because their patriarchal father wanted to realise his dreams for a son he never had, through them.

Anyway, I was sweating it out on the treadmill and smiling at a tender moment between the wrestler father and his daughters who were unwilling initially to learn wrestling, when I heard a snort. Then another one. I turned to find Vandana, one of the best trainers at the gym, standing behind me and watching the movie as well.

Why was she snorting, I asked? What was it, she asked me in reply, that I was smiling about watching the movie? I replied that even though I’d seen the movie before, the sight of the young Geeta Phogat practicing wrestling with boys in a highly patriarchal society, never failed to amuse and impress. Vandana snorted again.

It would probably surprise me, the 23-year-old said, that the sight of a girl in a wrestling arena in a Haryana village was not as unusual as shown in the film. “My father used to be a wrestler in his youth and my elder brother and I grew up around dangals, wrestling arenas,” she said. When Vandana looked back on her childhood in a village in Haryana, all she remembered was practicing wrestling, bodybuilding, gymnastics and more and eating wonderfully large meals laden with ghee and milk to fuel the exercise. “Being pure vegetarian, we would obsess about getting enough protein in our diets,” she said. “We’d eat soaked almonds, milk, yogurt and dal and our long suffering mother would keep making roti after roti that we would demolish by the dozen.”

The craze for physical fitness and contact sports became deeper as Vandana and her brother finished school. However, neither wanted to live in the village, choosing instead to come to Delhi to work. “I became a fitness trainer and student of fitness,” she said. “My brother is one of the best CrossFit trainers in south Delhi.” Today, Vandana lives alone in a single room flat, working in a profession dominated by pumped-up male trainers. She’s barely five feet tall, but manages to tower over them all. For a girl trainer holding out on her own in a unisex gym is as brave, if not more so, than a girl wrestling another in a sports arena (no offence to the sisters Phogat).

Her life story was fascinating, said I, but why did she snort at the movie Dangal? “It is giving people like you the impression that Geeta and Babita Phogat’s rise to fame as wrestlers is a one-off phenomenon,” said she. “Many young wrestlers in Haryana are capable of reaching the same heights as the Phogat sisters, but there are few opportunities to train or make a living from wrestling in the village, although there is immense interest in the sport.” Since all fathers can’t be as driven as Mahavir Singh Phogat, the need of the hour is, clearly, better training facilities and talent scouts in villages with strong sports traditions. 

Clearly my young friend had good reason to snort.

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