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Interview: Ladies First, An Inside Look at the Inspiring Journey of Deepika Kumari

Think about a young woman whose only future is to be married off and become a housewife and ultimately a mother. The circle of life  becomes that kind of corral for many teenagers in rural parts of India. Their only role models are their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and in the distance, a famous Bollywood star who serves as their icon.

Deepika Kumari is a name and story you should Google because she broke through the barriers and chains society placed on her to become a competitor in the Rio Olympics. Her story was chronicled by filmmakers Uraaz Bahl and producer Shaana Levy as Kumari rose from poverty to compete in the Rio Olympics, representing her country in the Archery team.

Ladies First is a powerful and empowering short documentary that Bahl, Levy and Kumari hope will inspire and empower girls all over India — so more girls can see that there is a life out there that they can aspire to by defying the limits that society tries to place on them.

I caught up with Levy and Bahl on their way to a conference in the UK where the documentary will screen.

How did Ladies First begin for you?

Uraaz: I was casting a project in India and constantly going back and forth. I was actually in a low place and I read this story about this girl who wanted to represent India in the Olympics but wasn’t getting the support she needed. I was reading it and I got it. I wanted to tell that story. We’re trying to do something good for our country but getting held back. The story was about these girls wanting to break boundaries. Very few women express their stories of wanting to break free and it was the story of this strong woman. I told my wife and said, “We should tell this story.”

So after nine days, we were on a plane to go and talk to this girl. We’ve been following her journey for about three years. We didn’t use any of the footage from the first six months because it took a long time to break down barriers. She was skeptical that we were just journalists coming to exploit her story and she was far more invested in her training.

Shaana: When Uraaz told me he wanted to tell the story, I read the article and for me, it was so astonishing that we live in a country that constantly suppresses women telling them what they can and can not do and they put women in such a tight little box. Here’s a girl who has nothing. She was born into nothing and was able to break free of those shackles that had been placed on her. As a woman to see that fight and determination is where the next generation needs to find their inspiration and strength. Uraaz and I were saying that unfortunately the role models that all of us have in India are far and few between from Bollywood or Cricket Players. For those girls in rural India, they know they’re never going to become a cricket player or a Bollywood star. When you look at Deepika, there’s a sense of relatability and that struck a chord with us and it could make a difference.

Uraaz: It’s such an inspirational story. There’s no one who has come from where she has.

You earned her trust and you’re watching her, what was the most inspiring for you to observe on that journey?

Uraaz: In the movie, you see what she encounters the abuse and not being able to really leave the house. The most inspiring thing about her is her stoic demeanor. She never breaks down and there’s one scene where toward the end of filming with her for three years, she breaks down. Our DP, our sound guy, and when we saw her break down in that moment made us howl. What inspired me was seeing her pick herself back up. She had that one cathartic moment and just let it all out.

Shaana: I think there was one moment that taught me about her backbone. It was the day we drove from the archery academy to visit her parents and it was a three-hour drive. We arrived in this dusty village and next to her house, there are these pigs grazing in a corner. We arrived at her house and her mother had woken up at 4am to make sure our entire crew was fed. We were touched because it was a big deal for them, it was a huge expense. It showed that you didn’t need to be wealthy to be generous. It showed me who her parents are and who Deepika is. If you give support and love to these girls out there like her parents did, they can grow to amazing heights.

How did you refine the story you wanted to tell if you’ve spent three years with her?

Shaana: We were so lucky with our team. We have to give credit to our editor, Avdhesh Mohla.

Uraaz: Cutting it and getting the story was so special. We had over 200 hours and he cut it. For us, the craziest part of making this film is that we were using support as a barometer for gender equality. We did our research and realized no Indian woman has won an Olympic Gold medal. We kept looking and the graphic you see at the end how no woman from any country has ever won a gold.

We spoke to a sports psychologist. He explained that women that come from countries where they don’t value women will never win an Olympic gold. Deepika breaks records and wins prizes all over the world, but the Olympics is a different circus. When you put a woman on that podium it’s all about women from countries where they value women and they come out on top. That coming out in the edit was very troubling, but it was also special.

Shaana: What we were so fortunate that Avdhesh relocated to Mumbai so we could be a part of the edit. He came and lived there for a few months and it allowed us to be very involved. We had a 2 to 1 rule and we made decisions based on that rule and we abided by it. There were a lot of heated debates.

Uraaz: We tried ways of telling her story and we followed her best friend to show Deepika as the girl who got away and her best friend who didn’t. We wasted two days with this girl, and the in-laws were always hovering and so she couldn’t speak freely.

We shot this film assuming Deepika was going to win the gold. When she lost, we didn’t know how to shoot the film. The day she lost she went back to the academy and she was going to speak to the girls in the academy. She knows where she’s from and she wanted to encourage them. Her almost not winning is almost as powerful as if she had won. There’s still a fight in her.

Shaana: It’s reality and we all go through ups and downs and the sooner we learn how to pick ourselves up and continue fighting is the day we are a winner. She is already a winner, win or lose. She has risen, she has fought and is a winner in our eyes.

Uraaz: She told us that all the girls in that academy have fought to get there. She said that’s why it was important for her to go back. In making this film, we realized that there are so many women in India who have the fight in them and if we can give girls a sense of belief then we’ve done a good job.

In India when girls turn 14 and 15 and their bodies change, the body shaming happens and the only women they see are their mothers and aunts. Through her story, if we can give a sense of hope and belief. We believe the spirit of the human spirit is so strong it can conquer all if a girl believes she can, she will.

Shaana: That’s the importance of sports. When girls play sports, besides their competing and participating, they’re already breaking gender bias, as it’s known as something for boys. It gives them leadership skills and confidence in a sense of equality. They’re hopefully able to navigate the workplace better, less chance of them getting into drugs. The benefits and upside of girls playing sports is remarkable.

What did you learn from Deepika that changed you?

Uraaz: It’s something I’m so proud of. We all say life is shit and we’re so down on ourselves. She is like a human Labrador. She will take the hit, she will fall down and bounce right back. She never wanted to watch the film. She didn’t want to watch it. She didn’t want to watch herself crying. She’s all about looking forward and being strong and focusing on the one goal that will change her life and the life of women in India.

It’s so inspiring because there is no career mobility. The next step is marriage and children and to see someone defying the village and the elders has been life-changing.

Shaana: Even though she’s 23, there’s still the innocence of light, love, and hope. For me, it was inspiring to see the world through her eyes. We get so jaded and we look at things through such cynical eyes and for me, it gave me hope to look at things through simpler means. She has become a part of our lives and will be there forever.