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March 08, 2018

Why ‘Ladies First’ Is A Documentary Every Indian Needs To Watch This Women’s Day

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

We speak to producer Shaana Levy-Bahl and Olympic archer Deepika Kumari who take us on a journey of grit and determination that demonstrates why we cannot expect to be a great nation if we marginalise half our population

“Talent is evenly distributed amongst gender, unfortunately, opportunities are not.” This statement, delivered by filmmaker Shaana Levy-Bahl, is a long overdue kick in the gut that has been neatly packaged into a documentary titled Ladies First that substantiates how sports revolutionises the lives of women. The premise focuses on the trials and tribulations of Deepika Kumari, the Olympic archer from India who catapulted to fame when she became the number one woman archer in the world merely four years after she first held a bow and arrow in her hands. Having lived in Kenya, Switzerland, London, New York and finally moving to Mumbai after her marriage to director Uraaz Levy, Shaana felt an urgent need to tell Kumari’s story when a serendipitous newspaper-reading session with her husband opened her eyes to the athlete’s inspiring journey. This was how the germination of the plot for Ladies First came to be and three years later, the filmmaker duo is all set for the well-timed Netflix-release of their labour of love on the occasion of International Women’s Day.

Excerpts from our conversation with Shaana Levy-Bahl and Deepika Kumari on what to expect from the film and how they hope to make an international impact with it:

Why are you so passionate about women in sports?
Shaana Levy-Bahl (SLB): “I have always gravitated towards women’s journeys of endurance, resilience and growth that inspire fellow women and, more importantly, men.  When we began working on Ladies First, my fervour grew exponentially as I began to understand the significance of sports for women. I read an incredible study published by the UN about women in sports and the fact that it caused me to draw so many parallels with Deepika astonished me. Equal representation in sport helps women challenge gender stereotypes and discrimination and serves as a vehicle to promote equality and empowerment. Additionally, female leadership can shape attitudes towards women’s capabilities as leaders and decision-makers in, what are predominantly considered to be ‘male domains’.”

Deepika Kumari (DK): “I did not pick archery; it picked me.  All I remember is walking into an academy that teaches tribal sports and next thing I know, I’m being handed a bow and arrow carved out of bamboo. That was quite discombobulating for a girl who had no idea that archery was even a sport. Needless to say, I failed miserably because I was weak and malnourished. The prospect of free food was too enticing to pass up, so I pleaded with the academy to let me train for three months before giving up on me. It was only when I discovered an inherent flair for archery that I started taking a real interest in it.”

Did a personal incident prompt your decision to produce this documentary?
SLB: “My husband and I were keen to launch our production company with a film that had a social cause at its heart; one that would inspire women to fight for equality and break boundaries. We wanted our stories to have global appeal and as we started researching potential subjects in the year before the 2016 Olympics — Deepika’s story jumped out at us.”

DK: “Whenever a media delegate would interview me, they would keep nettling me about the future and how I see myself performing as if I had psychic abilities. I wanted to retort with an equally scathing “I don’t know when and if I will win; I am not a fortuneteller.” I wish they would concentrate on the blood, sweat and tears we give to the sport so that we can do our country proud. Starring in this documentary was my way of showing the audience what goes on behind the scenes in the life of a sportswoman.”

What made you want to tell Deepika’s story?
SLB: “Deepika’s narrative is the epitome of inspiration as she came from humble beginnings. She was born on the roadside into abject poverty in Jharkhand and was barely 12 years old when she went in search of food all by herself, believing it would be one less burden to her family. Stumbling across a hostel that taught archery, she begged them to let her in, not out of love for the sport, but because she was desperate for the free meals and saw it as a ticket out of her oppressive village life. Four years later, she was the number one archer in the world. Her meteoric rise was nothing short of miraculous and I wanted to be the bond that connected these two episodes.

It is so rare for a person to find their hidden genius, and this documentary will give those up in high places an idea of what our girls could achieve if given the opportunity. That’s not to say there aren’t are other stories of incredible women athletes, but Deepika’s tenacity, willpower and never-say-die attitude had us at hello. We hope our film inspires every girl with athletic ambitions in our country.”

Which is the most emotionally-draining scene you had to shoot?
SLB: “The last interview we did with Deepika after Rio has to be the most gut-wrenching one. Uraaz asked her how she felt after being eliminated from the Rio Olympics during the pre-quarterfinal matches and, for the first time in the three years we’d known her, she broke down on camera. We were privy to her vulnerability, heartbreak and disappointment, which ended up as 40 minutes of unadulterated anguish on the reel. Unfortunately, it had to be cut down to only a minute or two, but our entire crew were complete wrecks after the take.”

DK: “When it comes to training, some of the toughest instances are when I have to correct my technique after the coaches have studied my form. It is natural to fall into a pattern and habits are always hard to break. If you ask me about how I faced the camera in spite of being a novice, I’d have to say I mostly concentrated on my training, which got even more intense as we inched closer to the Olympics. On the whole, I ignored the camera and just made sure I was working on my form. My coaches said that the documentary was a good way of learning how to tune out the media and keep my eye on the prize. It also helped that Shaana and Uraaz’s team never distracted me even once during the entire process.”

How is your relationship with each other off-screen?
SLB: “Deepika has become like a sister to us — we speak to her multiple times a week and she knows that she can call us if she needs anything. I must admit that it took time for her to open up to us as she has had a terrible relationship with the media, but she realised we were the real deal when we were the only people to call her after her Rio matches. In fact, she even ties a rakhi on Uraaz’s wrist now. She stays with us whenever she is in Mumbai and we feel privileged that this film allowed us to watch her grow and have her in our lives forever.  We are fully invested in her training schedule and are supporting her by trying to arrange for a mental coach and a physical therapist — basically any assets that will help prepare her emotionally and physically for Tokyo 2020.”

DK: “I was most taken by how Shaana and Uraaz were very respectful of my time and worked around my training schedule. They were adamant about not allowing anything to derail my preparation and lay waste to years of hard work. I realised they weren’t fair-weather friends — they took a genuine interest in my life and continued to support me even after we wrapped up the shoot.  I have grown very close to both of them, so much so, that I now call Uraaz ‘bhaiyya’.”

How did you pitch this documentary to Netflix?
SLB: “Netflix is a mecca for short films and has completely changed the game for documentaries and its filmmakers. Our vision was always to take Ladies First to them. We believed in what we had made and thought that it spoke for itself, so our pitch was very simply just that — the film!”

Do you believe that there exists a general malaise in our society with regard to women?
SLB: “Without a doubt. The inequality is prevalent in every aspect. In 2012, the UN voted India the worst place for women to live in among the G20 nations. I couldn’t believe that we were worse than Saudi Arabia, a country that is infamous for its draconian laws against women. Three years ago, the UN released its human development report, which ranks India at a shameful 130 out of 155 countries in the gender inequality index — I was appalled to discover that Bangladesh and Pakistan had fared better than us.

In India, there are far too many issues concerning women that need addressing, right from child marriage and education to equal pay and heinous crimes against women. It is a long and disheartening list that should upset the collective public greatly. 80 girls are killed at or before birth every hour… 48 per cent of girls get married as children in rural India… A woman reports a case of rape every 21 minutes… Only 1 per cent of Indian girls go to university… I could go on and on. We saw these statistics take on a life of their own when we visited Deepika’s village outside of Ranchi. She admitted that she was the only girl from her class who was not married with children and at the time she was just shy of 20. She spoke poignantly about how some of her friends would call her up, crying on the other end of the phone as they were tired of living the thankless lives of housewives where they were not valued — all they wanted to be able to do was assist their husbands and feel useful.

Families in rural India prefer that their daughters look after their affairs at home rather than go to school or play with boys. Sometimes, the only reason they dissuade their kids from picking up a sport is that they do not want them to wear shorts. When Deepika moved to the Tata Academy and began earning money for her family through her victories, neighbours would gossip about how she was bringing the dough by selling her body. It still makes my blood boil to think of it.”

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, is there anything you would like to say to aspiring women athletes or women in general?
SLB: “Today, I urge families, neighbourhoods, schools, villages and the government to encourage girls to help create opportunities for girls to shine outside of the home and discover their hidden talents. We cannot expect to be a great nation if we marginalise half our population. In conclusion, I’d just like to quote Deepika herself, “You only lose when you quit.”

DK: “If your heart is yanking you in a certain direction, take the risk and follow its lead, no matter how impossible it may seem at the outset. Although my father had no reservations about his daughter taking up a sport, he did have an issue with me living away from home at such a young age. I kept up a steady litany of “Please let me go. I want to do this.” He did not budge for the longest time, but he finally came around. My mother was my rock during this entire process and always supported my decisions. I think of her when I climb onto the podium at an international competition and the national anthem plays. I thought of her when I was receiving the Padma Shri award and swelling with pride. Many young girls from my village can now go up to their parents and proudly demand that they be enrolled into a sports academy because they have realised that my dreams also allow me to support my family financially.

Do you have any other women empowerment projects in the pipeline?
SLB: “We have just started pre-production on our next film, which is also centred around the life of an ordinary Indian woman who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming circumstances and chooses love over hatred.”

DK: I soon begin shooting for Bisahi, a movie that condemns the practice of witch hunting, which continues to plague many villages, including mine. The film will document how society torments women who challenge the status quo under the guise of witch hunting.”

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