Sir said this is the first time he has seen someone box in full pants," smiles 18-year-old Zainab Fatima, describing her initiation into the sport. She says she tried but “sir", coach Cheema, would not allow it and the inevitable shorts replaced her sporting gear.

Chronicler: Anusha Nandakumar. Goutam Roy/Mint

The story of Zainab, her sisters Bushra (17) and Shugra (16) forms the crux of a 26-minute film, The Boxing Ladies, which won the 58th National Award last month for the best documentary on sports. The teenage sisters from Kidderpore in Kolkata are from a slum colony where several young people find solace in pummelling others in a ring. The girls too brim with anger that, when not directed at an opponent in the ring, comes out on others, as evident in the film.

Anusha Nandakumar, who researched, wrote and directed this film, which was completed in June 2010, was looking for a subject as part of her course at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata. She chanced upon an exhibition of photographs by David Trattles on this colony of pugilists. After four-five months of research, Nandakumar identified this family of nine, including six girls. Initially four girls had started boxing; then the oldest, Ainal, got married.

Over the phone from Kolkata, Nandakumar says the girls dropped out of school sometime back because their parents could not afford the fees. Looking for something else to do, they gravitated towards sports, boxing in particular, as it was convenient. Today their commitment levels are so high that they would rather skip meals than miss practice, say the parents in the film.

The Boxing Ladies was funded and supported by SRFTI, which entered it for the awards. Nilotpal Majumdar, professor and dean of SRFTI, says what impressed him was the story. “The story finds good characters and tells us of their conflict, their attempt to find an identity. The film goes close to the characters and brings out a social reality," he says.

While the girls’ mother was initially reluctant to allow her daughters to box, the fact that their father used to box at the same club helped their cause. The girls have been boxing for two years now, and have participated in several local competitions. The family believes this will help advance their careers and chances of employment.

“There are about 100 people who box in this one club," says Nandakumar. “Of them, only about five-six are girls. They have the support of the community and at 10 a month, it’s affordable for most."

Shot over a week, the documentary tracks an average day in the household, showing Bushra working at a telephone booth, Zainab helping her mother with tailoring, while the youngest, Shugra, is mostly seen napping, whenever they are not at the club.

“For the family, this is a means to an end," says Nandakumar, who spent many weeks with the family before proposing the film.