Ms. Representation: Sharp Shooter
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week it is Ladies First, a documentary based on the life of archery champion Deepika Kumari
In Ladies First, a Netflix original documentary that I stumbled upon under the section ‘Women who rule the screen’, India’s Archery Champion, Deepika Kumari drops several truth bombs, her frustration palpable even as the documentary begins. She says, people in our country keep saying Ladies First, why can’t they let us come first in sports? She is talking about how discouraging our society is for women in sports. "They are worried," she says, "That if they let us move forward we will go so far ahead of them that they can no longer see us," as she sprints out of the frame.
Her mother works in a hospital in Ratu, Jharkhand and is among the very few women who work in the village. Her father an auto rickshaw driver, she explains, knows the ways of the world and she loves listening to him. Her father, in turn shows off with pride how he didn’t spend a penny on the big house he now lives in, thanks to his daughter, who was born on the roadside. Growing up in poverty and very aware of the structural imbalances gender causes, Deepika leaves home at a young age to join an archery academy over a 100 km away from home. Before you know it she’s World No.1, breaking records and qualifying for Olympics in 2012.
Unlike most sport documentaries that focus on the winning moment, or look back at the struggles and then leap forward to the ‘happy ending’, Ladies First directed by Uraaz Bahl, dares to think outside the rules of the genre. Its biggest triumph is in placing Deepika at the centre, through the entire film. It is her story and clearly about what she wants, asks for and yearns for, and then does. Most frames focus on her face, tight, as she speaks her mind and of her past unsentimentally, and with utter disdain for the chauvinists around her. And Deepika is a delight to listen to. Why wouldn’t she be? She knows what she’s doing, what she’s talking about and what is needed. She is a world champion and record breaker and a force to reckon with. It is an important film because it must be shown to young girls everywhere. Deepika is ambitious and is not afraid of failing. She speaks her mind and goes after what she wants. She says she doesn’t have many friends and wants to focus on winning medals. How often do girls get to hear this on screen from women doing well? Women are expected to not withdraw and focus on one passion; there is no room of their own. Particularly where Deepika comes from, as she says, they are to marry at 18 and then leave home to take care of the husband and have kids.
Failure for sportpersons who are at the peak of their form, is heartbreaking. But Deepika, through Ladies First is asking us to think about why women are failing. Her failure at the Olympics, both in 2012 and 2016, was the failure of the system and the infrastructure in the country.
As Deepika returns to her first academy, later in the documentary, and young hopefuls welcome her with aarti, she speaks to them about doing well in the sport. When the girls talk to her about working hard, she says, this is something we hear all the time from women in our country: ‘We will work hard’. We can keep giving our 100 and 200 per cent, but how will we ever know if what we are doing is right? Through this documentary Deepika talks about the lack of support and how her own call for help went unheard by the forces that be. She had asked for a ‘mental coach’ as Archery is a mental game. Instead, two babus and an Indian cook accompanied her to Rio. There wasn’t even a physio.
In one of the most moving moments in the film, Deepika, challenges our perception of winning medals as being the only criteria for celebration of sportpersons, even as she battles tears and admonishes the interviewer for asking her about how she felt after Rio. She gives honest answers to those questions, despite herself.
And as the documentary draws to an end, Deepika is back in focus, right at the centre of the frame, looking sharper and more intense than ever before, getting ready for Tokyo 2020. The finest moment in the documentary comes at the end, as we watch her prepare and learn that following her return from Rio, an elite Archery Academy in Jamshedpur is being set up. With a Mental Coach.
We catch a glimpse of what she could be for the sport, and what she already is. A guru and a rockstar. Whether or not the country knows and recognises her as those.