In its most moving moment, Deepika Kumari unsuccessfully fights back tears, moves out of the camera frame and returns, only to suggest a different line of questioning.
The query she faces in that sequence of the documentary Ladies First, a question she has faced repeatedly, is about her failures at the Olympics. The former World No.1 archer returned twice—from London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016—without a medal despite high expectations.
The film ends on an optimistic note, but her story has a certain amount of sadness—from her upbringing to the pressure of expectations. Uraaz Bahl’s documentary is not just the story of Deepika’s life. Most of it is known, from her rise from modest means in Ratu village, near Ranchi, to her initiation into archery at Seraikela, and her stint at the Tata Archery Academy in Jamshedpur. Uraaz, along with his wife and producer Shaana Levy-Bahl, also tries to explore the world of Indian Olympic sports, gender discrimination, logistical hurdles and one-dimensional media expectations.
“Educated people say sport is not for women,” Deepika, 23, says in the under 40-minute film. “In our country, we say ‘ladies first’ for everything, but why not for sport and education? It’s because such people fear women’s success.”
The self-funded documentary took two and a half years to make. It starts from just before the Rio Games, and takes Deepika back to her roots in Ratu, through Jamshedpur, Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai and Rio. It’s shot mostly in real time, with some archival footage.
With two-time Academy award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy as executive producer, editor Avdhesh Mohla (assisted in Senna, Amy) and cinematographer John W. Rutland on board, the film-makers worked, at times, with three crews to shoot simultaneously at different locations.
Uraaz says Deepika’s struggles with the bureaucracy resonated with his own troubles with administrators as a real estate developer. He found his own catharsis in this story.
It took them some time to earn Deepika’s trust, says Shaana—the archer is wary of the media. But she opened up after Rio.
In fact, Deepika’s defeat in Rio also left the film-makers in a quandary. They were so sure she would win a medal, they had assumed that to be a logical end to their film. Uraaz had to reconfigure the narrative; he realized there is more to Deepika’s story than a medal.
“The story initially was what she needs in order to go to the Olympics,” says Uraaz. “It also became about the problems on the field, oppression of women in that part of the world and the breakdown of a woman’s confidence. Women like these will never win an Olympic medal because they come from countries that treat women poorly. It pivoted from a sports film to one on woman empowerment.
“When she said she was going back to her academy (after Rio), we realized this was much bigger than winning or losing,” adds Shaana. “This is a story about giving back—a girl has done this, not a boy, and a family gets inspired by it.”
Deepika says it took her time to overcome her discomfort at the idea of talking about herself on camera. “I thought Uraaz bhaiya would be some 50-year-old buddha (old man),” she says over the phone, laughing. “When he came in front, I realized he is quite young. He built trust, but I don’t like seeing myself on TV. To again go to the same places with the camera stuck to me like a magnet was a pain. But, later, I became comfortable too and forgot about the camera.”
She needed much cajoling to see the film, however. “There are some parts (of our life) we don’t want to share. Every person has struggles, what’s the point in talking about them? Asking me the same thing over and over again,” Deepika says. “But if I have committed to it, I have to do.”
Uraaz’s next film, expected to release towards the end of the year, will be on Sandra Samuels, the nanny who saved baby Moshe Holtzberg during the 26 November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. The couple has already started work on the film, which is being produced by Freida Pinto, after being inspired by the clutch of awards Ladies First won at film festivals.
“She saved me,” says Uraaz about Deepika, and what he learnt from the experience. “I realized we have no reason to crib about our life.”
Ladies First is available on Netflix from 8 March.