Bollywood Star Aamir Khan Talks Female Empowerment Found in New Film 'Dangal,' Hollywood Aspirations

Disney/UTV

The wrestling drama, based on true events, will get the widest ever release for an Indian film in North America.

Two years after he starred in PK, the most successful Bollywood film ever, grossing an estimated $100 million, Aamir Khan returns in wrestling drama Dangal, which will open in North American theaters first on Dec. 21, two days ahead of its release in India and other countries.

Dangal is based on the real-life story of ex-wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat (Khan) who was forced to give up his dream of competing internationally due to financial constraints. But in a twist of fate, he fulfilled his ambition by training two of his four daughters into world-class wrestlers, while challenging the norms in India's strict patriarchal society.

Khan tells THR that Dangal is “a very human story of courage and believing in yourself and your daughters.” While the film's North American early opening and wide release will largely serve the Indian diaspora, Khan believes Dangal “can connect with audiences across cultures and from different parts of the world. It is for the family.”

When he was first offered the script, co-written by the film's director Nitesh Tiwari, Khan said that in addition to being “inspiring and exhilarating, what took me by surprise is that there was a lot of humor in the story.”

But the film also touches upon the more serious issue of female empowerment given that India has long been battling issues of gender bias and violence against women. Khan points that despite the odds, things are changing and that Dangal “will have a very positive effect. When there is a particular mind-set in Indian society which has been around for centuries, it won't change overnight but every attempt to look at things differently has its own impact and in that sense Dangal will have its own role to play in taking the issue [of female empowerment] forward.”

At this year's Rio Olympics, India's sports women made history with double wins. Sakshi Malik won the country's first Olympic medal (a bronze) in women's wrestling, while badminton player P. V. Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver medal. “The only two medals won by India at the Olympics this year were by women,” adds Khan.

As one of India's most bankable stars, Khan's career began in the late eighties with hits such as Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. In recent years, he also forayed into television, hosting a popular show about social issues, Satyamev Jayate, which aired on Fox's Star India network.

Khan, 51, is known to be a perfectionist in preparing for his roles, such as in 2008's Ghajini, for which he went through vigorous weight training to achieve a muscular look. While preparing for Dangal, Khan subjected himself to a grueling regimen that required him to first add 61 pounds to portray the older version of his character, forming a major part of the film, and then lose all that weight to play the younger version. “For the first time, I took it to the extreme,” says Khan. “Even when I was putting on weight, I continued to build my muscles. I went from 38 percent body fat to 9 percent body fat.”

Much as Dangal is a tentpole release, the film comes at a time after producer Disney/UTV recently announced its exit from producing local films citing “challenges” with Bollywood's “economic model.” The studio's remaining slate includes next year's release Jagga Jasoos starring Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif. But Khan is optimistic that Disney will return to local productions: “I don't see why they won't start producing again after some time and I look forward to that.”

Meanwhile, Khan will next begin shooting historical drama Thugs of Hindostan, co-starring with Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, produced by veteran banner Yash Raj Films. In addition, via his own production company Khan has co-produced Secret Superstar, the directorial debut of Advait Chauhan, set for release next August, in which the actor says he “has an important cameo.”

At a time when Indian talent such as Priyanka Chopra (Quantico, Baywatch) and Deepika Padukone (XXX: The Return of Xander Cage) has made forays into Hollywood, Khan says he welcomes the trend stating that “Indian talent has the potential to entertain the world.”

As for his own potential international foray, Khan says that in the past he has “received many offers from Hollywood but I didn't find any of them exciting in terms of script and character. For me, to do any film, the material has to excite me and which part of the world it comes from, is not relevant. When I do find something that I like [from outside India], I will be happy to do it. At the moment, I am more excited doing Indian films because I have an emotional connect with my audience which has been built over the last 25-30 years.”

In addition to its early opening in North America, Dangal will get the widest release ever for an Indian film in the U.S. and Canada, opening across 350 screens.The only other Indian films to break 300 theaters in North America have been last year's epic, Bajirao Mastani, with 304 screens and more recently, romantic drama Ae Dil Hai Mushkil at 302. 

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