Is Bollywood driving the Haryana girls? Or are Haryana girls rewriting the script, making Bollywood take note and bow?
Vinesh Phogat has gained recognition as one of the most talented Indian women wrestlers. Not yet 22, she has notched gold and silver at international wrestling championships.
Vinesh recently told a national daily, “I don’t have time for shayads (maybe’s) in my life. If you want to go ahead, go. Or else get out of my way.”
Her mantra for life: “I like being independent. I like being free.”
By year-end, we will see the reel version of Vinesh Phogat, the spunky freestyle wrestler, in Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal. Dangal is not the only Bollywood magnum opus inspired by the zestful girls of Haryana.
Komal Chautala, the little Haryanvi dynamite, valiantly stood her own in the 2007 hit, Chak De India.
Datto, the sportswoman from Haryana, was the feisty sportswoman who held her own against the lovable glamdoll-cum-melodrama queen Tanuja Trivedi in Tanu Weds Manu. In the movie, Datto famously introduced herself. “Kusum Sangwan. National level ki athlete su, zila Jhajjar”. (I am a national-level athlete from district Jhajjar).
More recently, we have seen Anushka Sharma’s Aarifa Hussain in Sultan, speaking up for women’s empowerment. Aarifa is a proud national-level wrestler nursing an Olympic dream. She tells the unemployed Sultan wooing her: Yeh joh tumhari society hai na … is mein aaj bhi ladkiyan ghunghat ke peeche janam leve hai aur wahin mar jaave hai (In your society, girls are born behind a veil and die behind a veil).
Cut to real life.
In an interview in 2014, Olympian wrestler Geeta Phogat explained why girls from the rural heartland of Haryana are now taking the sports route to glory. She said that being a sportsperson helped her get away from the “bhed bhav” (discrimination) of Haryana.
Sports, Geeta said, gave her confidence and self-respect, and enabled her to speak her mind. “Young girls in Haryana should speak their mind and not be afraid to challenge the system. Unhe awaz uthani chahiye (they must raise their voice),” Geeta said.
At age 22, Geeta became the first female wrestler from India to win India’s first gold medal in women’s wrestling in the 55 kg freestyle category at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Her sister Babita Kumari won the silver in the 51-kg category.
Geeta is also the first Indian woman wrestler to have qualified for the Olympics.
In Sultan, audiences saw Aarifa Hussain wrestling with boys.
This remarkable scene, where a girl takes on a boy in kushti, isn’t a fictional Bollywood construct.
About 15 years ago, Geeta Phogat was the only girl in her region to get serious about wrestling. Since there was no other girl who pursed wrestling, she had to grapple with boys her age for practice.
When Geeta sparred with boys, the village laughed at her. Everyone thought her father Mahavir Singh Phogat had lost his mind.
In Dangal, to be released in December, superstar Aamir Khan will play Mahavir Singh, the wrestler who battled the rigid taboos of Haryana to train his girls in the sport.
The deeply conservative Haryana gives us strange contradictions. Geeta is not the only woman wrestler to have competed with men.
Coming a decade after Geeta is Divya Kakran, also a Haryana girl.
In the dangals (wrestling bouts) of north India, Divya has been challenging boys to wrestling bouts since 2010, when she was 12.
Divya, now 18, challenges boys to a match and leaves them pinned to the ground. She overturns the masculine hierarchy of the akhara every time she steps into the kushti ring and goes for gold.
The Indian Express profiled Divya in its Sunday magazine cover story in December 2015. Over the last five years, the report said, dozens of hand-held videos of Divya fighting boys have been uploaded onto YouTube. They are shot from obscure village dangals across the north Indian heartland — Karari near Jhansi in UP, Khedi Pul in Faridabad, Haryana, Banhore in Jammu, Ghumarmi in Himachal Pradesh. All end with a cry of ‘Chitttt!’ — her male opponent sprawled on the ground, his shoulders flat against the earth. Most of the videos end here, at the moment of triumph.
Divya is among the most promising Indian junior wrestlers. She has added medals to her tally at the Asian Juniors, the National Games, and the Asian Cadet championships in Delhi in June 2015, where she was India’s solitary gold medalist. She is confident that one day she will be an Olympian.
She continues to compete at the dangals and kushti melas across north India. With the various medals that she has won, she now brings star power to the kushti ring.
Perhaps one day Bollywood will make a movie on her too