Every once in a while a documentary comes a long that sparks a revolution. It takes an issue that plagues our society and ignites a generation into action. 'Ladies First' is the documentary that could be a game changer for women in India.
On the face of it, the documentary tells us a story that every Indian sports fan is already familiar with. In reality, we live in an impenetrable sports cocoon that has trapped us in the twenty-two yards of the cricket pitch so much that one of the most inspiring journeys of an Indian athlete has gone unnoticed.
The documentary tells the heart wrenching and inspiring story of Deepika Kumari, a girl from the tiny village of Ratu, Jharkhand. Born into poverty, her home had all the problems that come with the territory. There was never enough food on the table, domestic violence was rampant and a life filled with struggle and misery seemed inevitable. Starving and with the noble intention of lessening the burden on her parents, a 12 year old Deepika leaves her village.
On a cousin's recommendation, Deepika joins an archery academy. Her only experience in the sport at this point was with homemade bamboo bows and arrows. Yet a roof over her head and three meals a day was something she couldn't turn away from.
What happens next is almost fairytale-sque in nature. Within four-years Deepika Kumari became the number one women's archer in the world.
Back to the tragedy of Indian Sports.
The situation might actually be worse than we imagine. Every one of us is up in arms every four years when India has a poor showing at the Olympics. Yet as a society rather than get to the root cause we focus on irrelevant topics– how many officials flew to Rio? Or should Salman Khan be our goodwill ambassador? What gets lost in this cacophony is why are Indian athletes not performing?
The film gives us insight in to a number of issues that are not known to the public. Footage of Deepika's and other members of the archery team's uncomfortable travel to the Olympics in Rio are just the tip of the iceberg. After the documentary familiarises you with the infrastructure of Deepika's archery academy, you'd think that it's nothing short of a miracle that Deepika became the world's number one archer.
The problem is clearly systemic and unless changed will result in the same scarcity of medals that we have come to expect.
The issues for women are even worse. Deepika speaks about it in the film with maturity and empathy. She says that we always say 'Ladies First' in various social situations, but why don't we say that for sports in India? Why not for careers?
Yet the case to encourage greater participation of Indian women in sports has never been stronger.
There have been a number of reports on the benefits of women's participation in sports. Studies have shown that apart from the obvious health benefits women that participate in sports are less likely to suffer from teenage pregnancy and substance abuse. Participation in sports also leads to enhanced life skills including self-confidence, self-esteem, communications skills and teamwork. According to a 2007 UN report – "The participation of women and girls in sport challenges gender stereotypes and discrimination, and can therefore be a vehicle to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls."
The country is not short on role models either. Last year Indian Women significantly out performed Indian men in the sports world. Sania, Sindhu, Saina, Dipa Karmarkar, Mithali Raj, Aditi Ashok, Sakhshi Malik, the Phogat sisters, Mary Kom and our Hockey team are all women who have broken barriers.
Yet what these successful women of substance, talent and character have to deal with to reach their goals is more than any man in India would have to go through. What is worse is that when they do become the best, they are then questioned by ignorant members of our society on whether their sports gear is appropriate apparel for a woman.
Shaana and Uraaz Bahl, the producers of the documentary 'Ladies First' (Uraaz is also the Director) have a more holistic vision for the film. "We want to empower women in India through sports," says Uraaz. "With the belief that human connection and the power of storytelling is the necessary catalyst for social change, our goal is to connect audiences to an inspirational role model. We all have dreams but the difference is these girls have no support system to help get their dreams realised. By including Deepika into their lives they can finally feel ownership of her stories and hopefully say 'If she can do it, so can I'. That's why we want this film screened at schools all over the country so there is a ripple effect of change."
The documentary has already won seven international film awards. A screening was also conducted with Maneka Gandhi, the Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development, with the intention of creating national awareness. It may be my blind love for sports and perpetual optimism but I believe that if young girls in our country see Deepika's story it will be a game changer for Women in India.
Change in the form of infrastructure, opportunity for women in sports and most importantly the mindset of the role of a girl child and woman in our society. It is clear that the time for 'Ladies First' is now.
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