When Dangal was released on an estimated 9,000 screens across China in early May, the team behind the film had hoped it would do well. No one, however, was quite prepared for just how well-received the Aamir Khan-starrer would go on to be in cinemas across the mainland. Over the past month, Dangal, or Shuaijiaoba Baba (Let’s Wrestle, Papa) as it’s named here, has grossed a figure of over 1,000 crore rupees (1.05 billion Chinese yuan or US$154 million). The film, which was a huge, critically-acclaimed success in its home country, has been reported to be China’s highest-grossing non-Hollywood foreign movie.
It’s a big leap for a film that deals with an issue not often explored in popular Bollywood cinema. The story of a father’s efforts to overcome gender prejudice and train his daughters into becoming wrestling champions, Dangal’s narrative pushes back against gender inequality through portraying women in sports. It’s a subject that several filmmakers in India shy away from tackling, even as the need for women’s issues to be represented becomes more pressing than ever.
The fact that India is home to significant gender disparity in rural areas isn’t breaking news. Much has been written about the efforts by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to empower women in the country’s villages, and about the campaigns for education, sanitation and economic independence. Scores of women have started their own businesses and gained financial freedom, despite living in a severely patriarchal environment. Friends working with NGOs narrate stories of young women that have taken skills training, and now have plans to set up their own small-scale production units. It’s an inspiring picture in which women are fighting the patriarchal system and taking control of their lives, with movies like Dangal helping to reinforce that notion.
It is, unfortunately, still a notion, and one that remains somewhat far-fetched. The idea of a fast-changing India, where women are working alongside men on an equal footing and getting equal appreciation and returns for the same amount of work, is still largely contradicted by realities on the ground. Gender equality, while significantly better than decades ago, still has a long way to go in the country.
India has for generations favored its sons over its daughters. In my parents’ time, this was seen through the division of the family’s resources: money was spent on education for the male child, and on marriage for the female child. For my generation, however, it means that the two genders are held to very disparate societal expectations. Men get a higher degree of freedom and greater autonomy over their own lives, while women who attempt to lead a life independent of their family’s plans face a significant amount of struggle.
This struggle is constant and almost invisible at times, unless you have personally experienced it. It starts early—from parents giving their daughters much less independence and insisting they follow a long list of rules to which the sons don’t need to adhere, to the rest of the family insisting on them getting married before a certain age, sometimes asking them to sacrifice professional ambitions for this purpose. Landlords routinely refuse to rent apartments to single women because that is considered “indecent,” and women consuming alcohol is still seen as a hugely “immoral” activity.
The pressure to conform is immense.
It’s the product of the same patriarchal system that exists in the country’s rural areas, where female infanticide still takes place, and dowry deaths regularly make headlines. Infrastructure is still heavily slanted in favor of men—even sanitation facilities for women are still severely lacking. “But at least women in cities face no problems,” is a popular opinion. “At least most of them have jobs, have had an education and are independent. What could they have to complain about?”
The problem with this line of thinking is that it fails to take into account the multitude of unseen hurdles that still persists for them. There is still a vast pay-gap, it’s much harder for women to get promoted than their male colleagues, and many companies hire far fewer women than men in the first place. Many managers sneer at the idea of maternity leave, and complaints about sexual harassment by superiors in the office (as reported several times in the media) tend to be ignored—all of which creates an extremely unwelcome atmosphere for women in the workplace. Women in engineering and tech fields still aren’t taken seriously, and those in sports face an uphill battle. The facilities are meager, and so is the financial support. For instance, cricket is said to be India’s most popular sport and the players are almost idolized. With women’s cricket, however, the players find it hard even to get adequate sponsorship.
While the problems Indian women face might vary from urban to rural areas, they all stem from the same source: the belief that they are the weaker, inferior gender.
If this sounds like a pretty bleak picture, it is. There are also, thankfully, many silver linings. There are activists and organizations working tirelessly to change the situation, bit by bit. There are people trying to educate, create awareness and explain to people that tapping into women’s potential and allowing them to realize it to the fullest can only be a good thing. Like the previous stories of women in villages who blazed a trail for themselves, there are many others who are trying, and succeeding, in doing the same.
The thing to remember, however, every time we see a story like Dangal, is that it is an exception, and that there is a long way ahead. Hopefully, India will one day get to a place where there is more gender equality across various fields, and across the length and breadth of the country. It’s vital to keep working towards that goal. After all, as Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.