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Meet Mahavir Singh Phogat – The Real Star of ‘Dangal’

December 24, 2016

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Anyone who closely follows Hindi films and Bollywood news will tell you this – Aamir Khan, at least in his modern avatar, is quite a perfectionist. He believes in making films which are quite out of the ordinary. One of the most important criteria for Aamir to pick a movie seems to be the social message involved in the story. Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots, and PK are proof enough that Aamir Khan believes in making meaningful films and the audience loves to take home the messages these come with, to think and ponder over and even reflect in their lives. His latest release, Dangal is no different. Appreciation is already pouring in for the film and it looks set to bring in huge box office collections. Here is a look at the story of the real stars behind Dangal.

Featuring The Phogats

Aamir Khan opened Season 3 of his epic talk show, Satyamev Jayate, with an episode titled, ‘A Ball Can Change The World’ (aired October 5, 2014). The episode was dedicated to the importance of sports in our lives. Two of the main guests featured on the show were national wrestling champions, Geeta and Babita Phogat. While introducing them, Aamir Khan asked his studio audience what might be the greatest worry of a father from a small village in North India with four daughters? He received answers that ranged from marriage expenses to dowry. He then introduced the two girls who went on to make a name for themselves in a traditionally male dominated sport – Wrestling. He also spoke of the girls’ father Mahavir Singh Phogat, who had made it his personal ambition to train his daughters. It is perhaps at this time, that Aamir thought of portraying this wrestler on the silver screen.

Mahavir Singh Phogat

Born into a Hindu Jat family in Balali village (Bhiwani district), Haryana, Mahavir was son of a pehelwan - a traditional wrestler. Young Mahavir took to the sport like fish to water and by the age of 16 was already a protegee of Master Chandgi Ram, the 1970 Asian Games gold winner in freestyle wrestling. Throughout the early ’80s, Phogat led a life of intense passion – entering various competitions in various towns and villages of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

Perhaps it was his travel, perhaps his own intrinsic values, or perhaps it was necessity – Mahavir chose to rise above the rampant gender bias. His wife Daya Kaur was not quite as liberal. She yearned for a son but gave birth to four daughters. Haryana is a state where the average sex ratio has remained firmly under 900 and where women’s literacy rates hover around 60 percent. Infamous for its gender bias, rural parts of Haryana shun the idea of women attending schools, leave alone training to wrestle. Undaunted by the societal norms surrounding him, Mahavir started to train his daughters. He was a taskmaster, his daughters say.

While local wrestling akhadas did not allow girls to compete, Mahavir often had his girls wrestle with boys to train them. In 2000, when Karnam Malleswari bagged an Olympics medal for India in weightlifting (another sport dominated by men), Mahavir promised that he would step up his training program. Master Chandgi Ram, his teacher who was also a major influence, had also introduced his own daughters to wrestling. Mahavir Phogat went on to quit his job at the Haryana State Electricity Board and started to spend all his time training his daughters. He later took his daughters to be trained at the Sports Authority of India training centre in Sonipat.

The Phogat Sisters

Mahavir Singh Phogat’s efforts paid off as his four daughters – Geeta, Babita, Ritu, and Sangita started to win various wrestling competitions across the country. Along with them, he also started to train his two adoptive daughters – Vinesh and Priyanka – whom he had adopted after the death of their father and Mahavir’s brother. The eldest of the sisters, Geeta blazed a stellar path. The 1988-born Geeta Phogat became the first gold medal recipient at the Commonwealth Games of 2010. She also became the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics Games in wrestling. She also bagged the bronze medals at the Asian Wrestling Championships held in Gumi (2012) and Doha (2015).

Babita Phogat, the second sister, is also a much accomplished wrestling champion of India. She won a silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games held in Delhi. Later, in 2012, she bagged the bronze medal at the World Wrestling Championships. In 2014, Babita Kumari Phogat once again made India proud by winning the gold medal in 2014 Commonwealth Games. She was also selected for the Rio Olympic Games in 2014.

Vinesh Phogat, Mahavir’s adoptive daughter also trained with him and won the gold at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games in the 48 kg wrestling event. Apart from this, she bagged the silver at the 2013 New Delhi Asian Wrestling Championship, silver at the 2015, Doha championship, and again in 2016 at Bangkok.

Beyond Gender Stereotypes

Mahavir Singh Phogat was recognized for his contribution by the Government of India and was awarded the Dronacharya Award. More importantly, the release of Dangal has highlighted his contributions towards breaking gender stereotypes in India. His biography was penned by renowned sports journalist Sourabh Duggal in his book Akhada and was released in Chandigarh on December 21, 2016.

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