Dangal has not only emerged as a winner, the film has also breached social barriers when it comes to women’s empowerment. The Aamir Khan-starrer, which originated with a newspaper article, is the brainchild of Divya Rao, who is on cloud nine with the success of the film. Rao talks to Rohini Nag Madnani about the journey of the film
Four years of hard work on the film. What was the journey like, and how does it feel?
I feel that patience has paid off. It all began in November 2012, when I first pitched the idea. At that time, UTV had just been taken over by Disney and we were looking for Disney kind of content. Disney has a code of conduct for the kind of content they make. It should be inspiring and motivating but also have universal appeal, the kind of a film the entire family can watch.
I had read about Geeta in the newspapers, after the Commonwealth Games and that’s when the germ of the idea – and the title Dangal – came to me. I did some research and wrote a two-pager on the same. After developing the concept, Nitish (Tiwari) came on board. Then, Piyush, the co-writer and I went to Patiala to meet Geeta at Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports. After we heard her story, we realisesd that Mahavir Singh Phogat was very instrumental in making his daughters what they were. So, we headed to his village, Bhiwani in Haryana.
Did you expect the film to get such a massive response?
Actually, no, it still hasn’t sunk in. It still feels surreal to be interviewed and that the film has become such a massive success. Most of my friends are not from the film industry and when I get calls from them, it feels great. A lot of my old friends and even people I haven’t spoken to in years are calling to congratulate me. It feels surreal. My parents live in Kerala and proudly tell people that I was involved in the film.
You are the one who spotted the news about the Phogats in the newspaper. What made you think, in that instant, that this was a potential feature film?
We have a lot of feminist films being made in our industry but this story had women’s empowerment with male backing, which was new. As a writer, I have always been drawn to stories that are relationship-based, whether a father-daughter or a father-son story. Interestingly, when we met Mahavir Singh Phogat, the men in the family served us water and tea. I thought it was such a contrasting thing as our society always differs in terms of what is expected of a woman in the house. Also, having heard of incidents like honour killings in the region, it was refreshing to see such a change. Mahavir Singh Phogat told us about his struggle and how he trained his daughters, which further assured us that this was a story worthy of being told.
How difficult is it to maintain a balance between being authentic and making a film cinematically appealing?
It was not difficult as the film is very true to what actually happened, especially the part which showcases the childhood of Geeta and Babita, all of that is true to the core. Yes, the wrestling bit had to be dramatised as we wanted actors who could wrestle, not wrestlers who could act.
Once the idea took over, how did Aamir Khan get involved?
It was almost a year with all the research and narrating the story to Ronnie (Screwvala) and Sid (Siddharth Roy Kapur). They instantly said, ‘Yeh toh Aamir (Khan) ki picture hai.’ It was a unanimous decision to approach him. I think it was December 2013 when we met Aamir, he was busy with PK at the time. He heard the story and grew very emotional during the narration. He was excited about the film and said, ‘Let’s do it.’
But then he got busy with PK and the promotions of the film. During that time, we were worried just in case Aamir found a subject that he liked more than Dangal and took it up. Thankfully, things worked out. Aamir being Aamir, he wanted the look of the character and the film to be perfect, so it took two years in the making. As it is said, ‘patience pays’.
What was Mahavir Singh Phogat’s reaction to watching the film?
I met him after the screening and asked him what he thought of the film. He said, ‘Main aapko thanks karna chahta hu, aap jab aayi thi tab aapke ankhon mein ansu the aur aaj film dekhne ke baad meri ankhon mein ansu hai.’ He reminded me that when we had visited him in Haryana and heard his story, I had tears in my eyes. And now here he was getting emotional and tearing up. It was a huge compliment for me.
Where do you go from here?
I am working as a freelancer right now, working on a lot of ideas and writing stories. I used to be an assistant director before I joined UTV and I aspired to be a director back then. I may direct in future but, right now, I am working on ideas and busy writing.