On Women’s Day this year, a different sort of ‘wonder woman’ film made it to the televisions of Netflix viewers around the world. Unaided by visual effects, the heroine displayed superhuman capabilities, nevertheless; she broke through the shackles of poverty and the limiting circumstances of her gender and birth, and made it to the world stage of sport.
The protagonist was Deepika Kumari, India’s gold medal-winning archer at the Commonwealth Games, an Arjuna Award winner and Padma Shri, who had to first fight extreme hardship and challenges in her hometown of Ranchi, Jharkhand, before she could be part of Indian sporting history. The 39-minute documentary film was Ladies First. And the couple who made Deepika the star of her own film and an international icon was the husband-wife duo, Uraaz Bahl and Shaana Levy Bahl.
A realtor well-known in Mumbai’s power circles, Uraaz had expressed his secret desire to make a film to his actor-producer wife Shaana several years ago. After their wedding, they even travelled to the US together for a few months to study production at the University of Southern California’s film school. When they returned to India, they were inspired to create films based out of India, packaged for a global audience.
A sports buff, Uraaz had first come across Deepika Kumari’s name while watching the 2012 Olympics. “Since Deepika didn’t win, there was no more news about her,” he narrates. “But as the Rio Olympics 2016 approached, I remembered her talent and looked her up.” That’s when he discovered her journey from being born by the roadside, to winning gold at the age of 16, and becoming world number one: “And I knew I had to tell this important story.”
He shared his idea with his wife. “I realised instantly that this was not about archery, or winning or losing – this was much bigger,” recalls Shaana, a Columbia University alumna, who has lived and worked in theatre and cinema across New York, London and Mumbai. “I wanted to tell that story too – one that could help change the narrative in this country when it comes to girls.”
The couple contacted Tata Archery Academy in Jharkhand, where Deepika was training for the Rio Olympics. The archer was wary at first since she had had negative experiences with the media and did not want any disruptions to her schedule. “But once she realised we just wanted to document her life and training, the barriers came down and we developed a close bond of trust,” says Uraaz.
The filmmakers followed Deepika’s journey for three years, staying discreet and working around her needs and timings. “We wanted her to win more than anything, and the last thing we wanted was for the cameras to throw her off!” says Shaana. They opted for a Netflix release over cinemas to make it more accessible to global audiences.
“It’s an exciting time for content-creators and documentary filmmakers,” opines Uraaz, referring to the entry of several new players such as Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon, and Jio, all looking for rich visuals and content that people can connect to. The film was the maiden venture of the couple’s new firm, Red Ladder Productions.
As a first-time director, Uraaz not only had to face his own set of challenges in narrating a powerful real-life story, he also faced personal moments of frustration at the injustices he witnessed in the process. “How we treat our elite athletes and the obstacles that people like Deepika have to face really angered me,” says the Mumbai-based businessman.
Besides her sports training, the film also reveals insights about Ranchi’s rural culture, ingrained sexism, and the gender violence prevalent in its society. “Thanks to Ladies First, my dream is to one day contribute more significantly to sports in India and help more of Deepika’s incredible talent flourish and thrive on the world stage,” says Uraaz.
Terming it a ‘little film with a big heart’, he is overjoyed with the response Ladies First has received, with both Indian and international media welcoming the spotlight on a deficient aspect of sport in India.
After the film’s release, the 23-year-old archer visited Shanghai and was inundated with compliments from other coaches and players about how inspirational the film had been for them. “World-class mental coaches reached out and asked if they could help Deepika with her mental coaching,” says Uraaz, who continues to speak to Deepika every week.
On her part, Shaana narrates instances of mothers thanking her for making the film: “After watching the film, they agreed to send their daughters to that swimming class they were begging for, or signed them up to play a sport of their choosing! It has reinforced the power of storytelling as an incredible tool and catalyst for change,” says the producer, who believes sport can be used to challenge entrenched gender norms, reduce the vulnerability of girls and provide them with the opportunities and skills required to negotiate life’s transitions. Citing Deepika’s journey, she says sport also helps educate and reach out to girls especially when social interaction outside of home is limited for them.
Deepika, who is training for Tokyo 2020, is unchanged despite the publicity the film has garnered, says Shaana, “She is focused on her dream of winning a medal.” But Shaana herself has changed in the deepest way in the telling of the story.
“Deepika has left the biggest impact on me – she has reminded me that you ‘only lose when you give up’,” marvels Shaana. “Knowing what she has gone through, and the woman she has become, makes me proud to have been able to share her spirit and story with the world.”