Making a Dangal is fine, but let’s not try to change the world

The best we can do is to show some respect to the Olympics medallists, surely?

Olympian Sakshi Malik left behind her blue and gold shoes on the table at the press conference announcing her retirement over former WFI president and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh's man taking the helm (photo courtesy @xavvierrrrrr/X)
Olympian Sakshi Malik left behind her blue and gold shoes on the table at the press conference announcing her retirement over former WFI president and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh's man taking the helm (photo courtesy @xavvierrrrrr/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Remember Dangal, the sports biopic film produced by Amir Khan in 2016, which turned out to be the highest-earning Bollywood film till then?

The struggle of Mahavir Singh Phogat, who brings up his two daughters Geeta and Babita as wrestling champions struck a chord with the masses for its realistic production — and a statement on women’s empowerment. The movie raked it in at the box office. 

Seven years down the line, the narrative falls a bit flat for me.

Hopefully, the girls must still be thronging the akhdas in Rohtak, Haryana and its adjoining areas, the region that Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik comes from. But there looks to be something rotten in the system, which may prevent us from becoming the sporting power that India aspires to be in the coming years. 

Let’s ponder the scenes that unfolded over the last two days since the results of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) election were announced.

The election voted Sanjay Kumar Singh, a known protege of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh's, to power.

Malik, who along with Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat stood isolated and vulnerable in the face of her alleged harasser's unrelenting reach after the results, hung up her wrestling shoes to announce her retirement from the sport.

The next day, Punia laid down his Padma Shri medal on the road outside the prime minister's residence. Deaflympics winner Virender Singh Yadav offered to follow suit.  

Optics? Are these wrestlers, who are nearing the end of their professional careers, using the occasion as a launchpad to enter the political mat?

One cannot rule it out, perhaps; but surely they did not have to take such a long and arduous route about it, if true? For this is a well-trodden path for famous Indian sportspersons, and these three have already established themselves as a rare breed with individual Olympics medals. 

Let’s look at the bigger picture, for once.

In the 123 years of the modern Olympics till date (starting from Paris 1900), there have been only 23 individual medallists from India—the remaining 12 came from the golden period of hockey.

The first 100 years produced just four of them, for Norman Pritchard, K.D. Yadav, Leander Paes and Karnam Malleswari. Indeed, Indian sports fans were used to utter despondency in their wait for that solitary medal during the course of two weeks of the Games. 

It’s in this context that the achievements of a Sakshi or a Bajrang must be looked at, before doubting their motives. Before accusing them of ‘damaging’ India’s reputation abroad, as IOA president P.T. Usha said earlier this year. Before ‘politicising’ the issue ourselves, should we not need to ask ourselves whether they deserved this glaring spotlight in the first place?

Even without going into the merit of their allegations of sexual harassment of female wrestlers by BJP chieftain Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, let’s think if they deserved to be treated at par with the farmers’ agitation a few years back. Was there no other way to avoid this mess? This mess that led to people putting the blame squarely on their shoulders, for disrupting wrestling institutions and bringing them to a standstill in the country? 

On Saturday, 23 December, as Virender Singh Yadav—yet another Padma Shri awardee wrestler, a para athlete who goes defiantly by the moniker of Goonga Pahalwan ('the mute strongman')—wrote on X that he wanted to surrender his medal too, and urged elite sportspersons like Sachin Tendulkar and Neeraj Chopra to protest against the recent developments, how did India react?

Did either sports personalities or the general public hear his silent cry of protest against dishonour any better than Malik's was? Well, Chopra had spoken out when the agitation was on, but now with the elections over, everybody will want to move on. 

And if one thought a Amir Khan or Nitish Tewari, the director of Dangal, believed in what they preached—then we are being naïve. They will be on hand for the congratulatory tweets, may even acquire stakes in a Pro wrestling franchise. But why would they rock the boat, knowing which side their bread is buttered on (and by whom)? 

So it’s all over now, bar the shouting… Until it is time to make another biopic to rake in the moolah, when it is no longer a risky enterprise. (For now, there are safer bets.)

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