Mahavir Singh Phogat can never forget the moment. It was 2000 and he was in his home in Haryana, India, watching the Sydney Olympics on television, when he saw weightlifter Karnam Malleswari become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal – a bronze.
As a well-known wrestler, he was familiar with competitive sport but never believed an Indian woman could win an Olympic medal. ‘I was amazed to see a woman from my country win such a medal,’ Mahavir says. ‘I immediately thought of my four daughters and decided: they will go on to win medals.’
The story of how he moulded his daughters to become champion wrestlers is now the stuff of a Bollywood film. Titled Dangal (wrestling contest), it stars Aamir Khan in the role of Mahavir, Sakshi Tanwar as his wife Daya, and Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra portraying his daughters. The film opened in the UAE yesterday.
Dangal delves deep into how he trained his two daughters, Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, to become champion wrestlers. Geeta went on to become India’s first female wrestler to win a gold, at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, while her sister Babita won the silver.
‘I’m excited to tell the world about my journey and my struggle to get my daughters to be successful wrestlers,’ says Mahavir. ‘I want every father in India to trust his daughters as he does his sons because my daughters have proven that girls are no less than men.’
Mahavir, 60, comes from a small village in Haryana, northern India. He took up wrestling thanks to the encouragement of his teacher during his school days in the late Seventies. Mahavir quickly went on to grab several awards at the national level and showed great potential to make a mark at the international level. ‘But after my marriage [to Daya Kaur] in 1985, I had to abandon the sport and concentrate on working full-time to support my family,’ he says.
‘I had responsibilities so I had to dedicate my life to looking after my family. But I always missed the sport and I often used to tell my wife that my first child, whether a boy or a girl, would go on to pursue my dream of becoming a champ wrestler.’
But it was watching Karnam’s win at the Sydney Olympics that spurred him to make champions out of his daughters.
Quitting his job at the Haryana State Electricity Board, he started training his two eldest daughters, Geeta, then 12, and Babita, then 10.
Little did he know he would start a women’s wrestling revolution in what had always been a traditionally male-dominated sport.
‘I started training them at home. I worked with them for seven hours a day,’ he says. When he found that his daughters did not have any girls to grapple with, he made them wrestle with boys. ‘They thought I was being a cruel father but all I could imagine was them winning a gold medal for India in the Olympics,’ he says.
Mahavir admits that he pushed his daughters really hard and at times he knew they resented the training regime. ‘But I was determined to make them a success.
‘I didn’t know if my daughters had the potential in wrestling or not; I was just determined to train them well and believe in themselves. It didn’t matter to me if they had any other dream; they were too young to decide… I felt this is what they would do. I made this decision with certainty.
‘My dream was to bag an Olympic medal. But when I failed, I wanted to realise that dream through my daughters. I decided I would train them every day until I saw a gold medal in each of my daughter’s hands.’
Using the limited funds that he had, Mahavir created a gym next to his home, investing in more equipment whenever he could afford it.
Haryana in India is known for its skewed sex ratio and low female literacy rates, but the Phogat family went on to break all stereotypes despite community outrage. ‘I was ridiculed in society,’ Mahavir reveals. ‘I was told it was unacceptable for girls to fight in our society and that nobody would marry my daughters. They called me shameless. The villagers boycotted my family, but I ignored it all. I was determined that nothing would change my mind.
‘I also told my daughters that nothing should stop them. I taught them to ignore what people said and concentrate on their goals. And as they grew up they soon began to understand that winning a gold Olympic medal meant the world to me and they became very determined.’
As the oldest, Geeta was the first to compete and in 2003, aged 15, she won her first National Championship medal. And then there was no looking back. Geeta, now 28, says: ‘I initially hated wrestling and hated the way our father made us train. It was constant, without a single break or excuse. I used to think I was cursed to have been born in this family. He used to beat us if we ever refused training. We sisters used to wait for him to fall ill so that we could rest for a few days but he was so fit that he never fell ill.
‘But after about two years, wrestling became our passion. It had been hard at first, but then I loved it and didn’t want to do anything else. I’d practise every day. My father’s passion passed on to me and I decided I would win a gold medal for him.’
Eventually, Mahavir trained six girls in his family to become international wrestlers, which included his four daughters Geeta, Babita, 26, Ritu, 22, and Sangeeta, 20, as well as his deceased brother’s daughters Vinesh and Priyanka. The six Phogat women are now famous in the world of wrestling, and share numerous international medals among them.
Geeta got India its first gold medal in women’s wrestling in the 55kg freestyle category at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. She is also the first Indian woman wrestler to have qualified for the Olympics.
But last year Mahavir received a phone call that he never expected.
‘Some people from Mumbai came to my house,’ he says. ‘They told me they wanted to do a movie and I replied ‘OK’.
‘Yes, it was a surprise but I was very happy. It’s an honour to have someone like Aamir Khan play my character. It is wonderful and I was very happy to meet him. He was very polite and kind to my family.’
Mahavir is hopeful the film will leave a positive impact on every person who watches it.
He has been celebrating more than the movie release. Geeta got married on November 16, and Aamir was one of the guests.
Geeta says: ‘Growing up I was taunted a lot for my wrestling. People would ask: who would marry me? But my father always taught me to ignore them and focus on my goal. Now I’m married I will not change. My dream is to get the maximum number of medals for India and I’ll continue to practise hard.’
Babita won silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and a gold medal in the 2014 edition of the Games. Ritu and Sangeeta also compete at the international level, and there’s numerous medals on show in the family home.
‘I grew up watching my sisters practising. I didn’t want to do anything else,’ Ritu says. ‘The more I saw them train, the more I wanted to do the same. It was inspiring to see them travel to different countries, winning medals, getting recognition.’
Mahavir now trains over 30 students aged between 10 and 20, free of cost, at the gym he created at his home – now famous as the Phogat Training Centre.
Komal Sangwan, 10, from Haryana, says: ‘I come here after school. Geeta Di [sister] is my idol. I love to grapple with the boys as it gives me confidence to prove that girls are equally as strong as boys.’
When we spoke to them, the sisters were preparing for the Pro Wrestling League, which began in New Delhi yesterday.
Mahavir says: ‘I want to tell everyone that your family will be even better with a daughter, everyone should cherish a daughter.
‘There has been a drastic change in Haryana, I can see it. There was no Akhada [wrestling pit] for girls; now we have 50. Parents now send their daughters to my training classes. I am hopeful there will be more change after the movie. I hope people watch our story and take inspiration. Go encourage your daughters to become so much more. My only dream now is to see each of my daughters hold a gold medal, then my job is done.’