“Often I feel like answering back, but then I feel if I respond with words, people might forget. But if I respond with my arrows, they’ll never forget.”
On International Women’s Day, they’ve finally released to Netflix a long-awaited (by me, anyway) doc about Indian archer Deepika Kumari. If you’ve got Netflix, click here or search for ‘Ladies First’ on it.
N.B it defaults to voiceover (or it did on mine, anyway). Check the settings and make sure you have the original Hindi soundtrack and English subs on.
Just 40 minutes long, it’s beautifully shot and edited. When I heard about it last year, I was nervous that it would use her story as some kind of sappy moralist cipher. Am pleased to see they’ve done a lot better than that, even if it is a bit heavy-handed in places
As the most often-repeated soundbite goes, Kumari was ‘born on the roadside’ in grinding poverty in rural India, before her rise to (almost) the very top of the sport. Apparently, she only took it up because there was a place to stay at a local sport academy – as she puts it: “I thought if I left home, there would be more money.”
India recently ranked bottom in a recent survey of G20 countries of ‘the best place to be a woman’. Almost 45 percent of Indian girls are married before they turn 18. In poor regions like Jharkand, around 60% of girls are married before they are 16, and often younger. In rural India, there is a particularly deep antipathy to women taking up any kind of sport.
But nevertheless, she persisted. The film shows her uncle being very proud that he beat up her mother. It shows the utterly shitty treatment of her as an athlete – which, if you read about the various tribulations of the Archery Association of India in the last year or two, doesn’t look like it’s entirely over yet.
But Ladies First is already having an effect – after watching the documentary, Maneka Gandhi, the Indian minister of Women’s Affairs and Child Development, apparently pledged to set up a fund to support Deepika’s training and to support other female athletes. Well, it’s about time. The film graphically shows the remarkable discrepancies within Indian Olympic sport, with the women’s archery team making the 32 hour journey to Rio in economy, while their accompanying officials travelled business class.
Kumari was apparently reluctant at first to participate in the film because it might interfere with her Rio preparation, but eventually grew to trust the filmmakers enough to open up further than ever before. “The story is about fighting,” director Shaana Levy-Bahl said to Vogue India last week. “Sports gives girls a sense of worth and confidence.”
Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Deepika several times, although I’ve found her very difficult to interview, about anything. Recently I wondered if she might not be totally comfortable speaking in English. So the last time, in Rome, I asked her and her coach if she wanted to speak in Hindi, so I could get it translated, but she wasn’t having it. I did a piece with what I had, but it really wasn’t much. Ach, maybe it’s just me. 🙂
But I could entirely understand her wariness of talking to me/men/anybody, as the Indian media is notoriously sexist and frequently vicious about their sportspeople, and even more so when they are from Jharkand (for a comparison, imagine how the most reactionary media in your country would react to a gypsy Olympian). The film includes an incident in 2013 with Kumari and her teammates, fresh from a Hyundai Archery World Cup victory (where they beat Korea) being harassed to the point of tears by TV crews at Indira Ghandi airport.
The endemic sexism in the Indian media frequently extends to the language of reporting; when male archers get beaten, they were “overpowered”, but when Kumari gets beaten, she “meekly succumbed”.
Apparently Kumari is about to star in a movie about her homeland. Perhaps her archery career is just getting going. Perhaps – like her recent nemesis Tan Ya-Ting – she needs just one big major win to open the floodgates. But it’s clear that her role as a beacon of what is possible is just beginning.