Dangal: Wrestling Institutionalised Education in India

Dangal, the Aamir Khan starer, is brilliantly made to easily pass off as a nationalist and technically perfect Bollywood fairy tale, with a melodramatic happy-ending, that narrates the struggles of a lower-middle-class family in India to move up the social ladder, while fulfilling the grand patriotic mission of bringing international laurels to the country. A closer look would reveal that it is much more than a normal Bollywood formula movie, though it is made to enthuse every middle-class Indian’s digital media-driven dream of becoming rich, successful, and famous, jumping the class ladder several rungs at once. Beyond its designed-to-inspire facade, Dangal is actually the reassuring story of a father and daughter wrestling the way our educational institutions teach and support our children.

Institutionalized education in our country often adversely affects young people because of a few anomalies that handicap the way it functions – its unwillingness to reflect on its own practices, to take teaching risks, to learn from failures, and to challenge the status quo of traditional school structures and teaching approaches. Dangal, at one level, is a mirror held against the aversion of our school system to change. Any modification to the system has to be done within the existing framework of how business is usually done in schools. Any departure from the normal will be snubbed, and if possible punished.

Like any typical Indian who got out of school alive and functioning, Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Singh) survives the discouraging influence of a coach (Girish Kulkarni) who forces her to fit into what he strongly believes to be the National Sports Academy’s version of what is good teaching. The coach demonstrates a fatal reluctance to reconsider his position on what works better for a student under his care. Changing his position would mean that he cedes his control, the power bestowed upon him to maintain the status quo.

No, the coach is not exactly the villain in the story as one might think. He is one of the victims. He is the victim of an education system that requires teachers not to think on their own. There is a certain way things are done in the National Sports Academy and a different way of doing the same thing is unacceptable, an offense that needs to be nipped in the bud. He needs the whole system to rally behind him to ensure that the throne of the teacher is not usurped by overenthusiastic parents like Mahavir Singh or challenged by maverick students like Geeta Phogat. He does not like anyone questioning his approach as much as he is incapable of questioning what he does, on his own. He does not have the ability to see that his insistence on Geeta unconditionally accepting the training approach of the facility is detrimental to her learning needs.

Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) tries to drive some sense into the coach’s head at one point. He tells the coach: “You cannot insist that Shewag must try to play like Dravid. That way he will neither become Dravid, nor Shewag.” That line summarises the undesirably negative impact of institutionalized education on the process of learning as we see today. It places one-dimensional low expectations on individuals, based on unscientific assumptions about how people learn. Worse, it considers those assumptions as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It discourages evidence-based and personalized teacher interventions. It disregards the need to maintain high expectations about a learner. Irrespective of who you are, what you are capable of, and what works for you, you are supposed to conform to a monumental lack of faith in your ability to succeed. And these expectations are foisted on individuals based on a strong conviction that most people deserve to fail. Only some exceptional ones like Geeta accidentally succeed, sometimes out of the sheer luck of finding an unconventionally trusting teacher to work with or mostly because of a parent like Mahavir Singh who knows how to right the wrongs done by the system. (This is not to say that Mahavir Singh represents a parenting style you need to emulate.) The system fails most of us, except a lucky few.

The thoughtless bureaucratic structure of institutionalized education in India sabotages the possibilities of learning and wrings the urge to succeed out of an individual, importuning every student for conformity. Very rarely, as seen in the film, does the system become sensitive to individual needs, and reluctantly gives space for conditional inclusion. The coach was finally asked to stand down and let nature take its course in Geeta’s case. Such rare glimpses of magnanimity are not sufficient to make sure that all children learn, all children succeed.

One, teaching is a relational activity. Two, authentic learning requires a lot of personalized encouragement, scaffolding, and rigor. Three, teachers need to constantly reflect on their practices so that they are not trapped in the vicious cycle of systemic inefficiency. To ensure that these three beliefs shape the schooling experience we provide children, institutionalized education needs to participate in a big wrestling match and lose. If we do not wrestle this beast and pull down its archaic monolithic power structures that decide how education is routinely imparted in our country, we may have to keep locking up that handful of Mahavirs, to prevent them from taking the due credit for doing what teachers inside the system could not do. Therefore, as we did in the past, we cannot afford to lose this round of the educational Dungal!

Note: The real-life coach has a different version of the story, as DNA reports. This is a movie review and not a review of how National Sports Academy functions.