Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, starring Aamir Khan, may be scoring big on numbers, but the actual story of the two girls from a village in Haryana who put India on the world map is far beyond anything that can be put on reel or even written about.
Geeta Phogat, 28, the first to win a Gold in wrestling at the Commonwealth Games and also the first female wrestler to qualify for the Olympics, has become a status symbol for women everywhere. Before the Phogat sisters entered the world of wrestling, courtesy of their father Mahavir Singh Phogat, India was grossly oblivious to the many struggles faced by female athletes in the country.
As seen in the film, the girls hailed from a small village in Haryana, where the barbaric practices of feticide and ‘honour killings’ are still a norm. While the average family is determined to spend its limited savings on the education and well-being of a son, the daughter’s only goal is to train in household chores until she is married off to an acceptable suitor. After watching Dangal, many protested at the apparent ‘dramatisation’ of the situation in Indian village societies, but even they reluctantly agreed that there was an element of truth to the story.
While scores of the same conservative Indians have now been professing their ‘confidence’ in the Phogat sisters after the film, another young girl was being taunted for wrestling boys in the outskirts of Maharashtra.
Sixteen-year-old Mahima Rathod felt like her own story was showcased through Dangal. Born into a family of wrestlers, Mahima began training in the sport under the tutelage of her father, Raju Rathod.
Raju, whose grandfather, father, and eight uncles were all associated with the sport, had also managed to qualify for the state-level championship. However, a lack of funds and facilities forced him to drop out of the game and resort to farm labour in order to make ends meet. However, like Mahavir, he was determined to pass on his dream to his first-born son and live vicariously through his successes. And like Mahavir again, he was blessed instead with a daughter.
We got in touch with both Raju Rathod and Mahima, both of whom were willing to give us details about what it’s like to be a female wrestler in a society that considers the sport ‘male-dominated’ and the countless other challenges that she has faced through the years.
Raju stated that his epiphany regarding his daughter’s future as a wrestler occurred through a casual conversation with his brother, Santosh. Both had been cursing their luck at not having been gifted sons when they realised at the same instance that their dreams could be carried out by their daughters instead.
“I had never forced Mahima to take up wrestling since I knew how uncommon it was for a woman in our society to take part in it. But she insisted that this was her dream as much as it was mine. I come from a family of ‘pehalwans’ and maybe that rubbed off on my daughter. I asked my brother what I should do and he said that I should just start training her in the sport,” says Raju.
While Santosh’s daughter decided to pursue a career in medicine, Raju’s Mahima was more than happy to rise to the challenge.
Much like the Phogat sisters, Mahima was the only girl in the entire village who dived headlong into the ‘manly’ sport and faced her share of censure for it. Raju, too, had to face the ugly taunts of the entire neighbourhood, which collectively marked the Rathod family a laughingstock.
“I started training Mahima when she was only seven, and the village erupted in scandal. They would make fun of me and my family, and ask me how I could make my daughter a public ridicule by training her in wrestling?” he says.
Undaunted, father and daughter carried on their training, and soon enough, Mahima was enrolled in competitions beyond the village. However, procuring worthy opponents became a bit of a task for Raju. Most of the boys in the village refused to fight her because she was a girl, and in desperation, Raju had to resort to bribing some of them with Rs 5 to ten so that they would agree to the same.
“Most part of my training involved male wrestlers because there were no other female wrestlers in my vicinity. At times, these boys didn’t want to fight me either and I had to ask my brother to step in instead. It was only when I reached the State Levels that I got the opportunity to finally fight a female wrestler, and that was a learning experience indeed,” says Mahima.
Eventually her reputation in the pit began to grow favourably, and she finally got the opportunity to play against another female wrestler when she was selected for the Taluka-level match.
After successfully winning a series of state and district level matches, Mahima is now set to represent Maharashtra in the National Wrestling Championship at Patna. As of now, the 16-year-old who entered the professional pit only two years ago has already played two state-level matches and two national-level matches against other female wrestlers. In these, she was proud to win the Gold at the state level and the Silver at the national.
At the same time, she is also is preparing to write her 10th standard board exams, which are a few months down the line, resulting in an arduous daily routine of balancing training and studying. When asked on how she does it, she says, “I can’t give up my education. After classes, I attend my tuitions and then spend the rest of the evening and night, practicing hard.”
Raju’s limited salary as a soybean and cotton farmer has all but been spent on Mahima’s training and related expenses. His undeterred faith is what Mahima credits to her gradual climb up the ladder, much like Geeta, who dedicated her gold medal entirely to her father, Mahavir.
“The Government has not provided any backing for training or other purposes. I attribute my success and training to my father. He is and will always be my coach,” she says.
Although the many victories of the Phogat sisters across seas and within the homeland have refurbished the average Indian’s ‘support’ of female wrestling in the country, the struggle to receive government recognition still continues. Mahima received a scholarship from the Centre, but she still lacks the necessary funds that an athlete of her calibre is privy to. Similarly, it took Geeta Phogat a six-year-long wait to be appointed as DSP despite winning India the Gold while several of her male counterparts were granted the position on an immediate basis.
“The Government hasn’t offered any support to Mahima, except for a scholarship worth approximately Rs 7000. Mahima entered the rings two years ago and has managed to make the cut to the nationals. However, we’ve been training the same way we began – with no funds for even a wrestling mat, making us resort to practising on the mud-floors in the ‘kheti’. The roof over our heads may not have changed but that doesn’t deter us in the least. We have a greater vision,” says Raju.
However, Mahima’s dedication to her passion and her already promising athletic prowess has caught the attention of several activists and social organisations, including social worker Parsharam Narwade, who has orchestrated a fundraising campaign to help Mahima’s dream come true.
As for Mahima, whose international trials are set to begin soon, this is only the beginning. Following the outcome of the nationals, she intends to take admission in the training academies at either Haryana or Kolhapur.
The 16-year-old is determined to win Gold for her country when she represents it on an international scale. As she told me confidently, “The gold is ours for the taking and I am going to win it for my country, my India.”