Deepika Kumari would be the first to tell you that her path to becoming the best archer on Earth was never as swift, straight or true as an arrow fired into a bull’s-eye – but she would also hasten to add that she’s living proof that a girl born into abject poverty on a roadside in rural India can, with persistence, rewrite her destiny.
Ladies First, a powerful new sports documentary short that streams on Netflix starting on Thursday – International Women's Day – tells how Kumari in her childhood went searching for food one day, stumbled upon archery and within four years achieved the top ranking on the planet.
Made by Mumbai filmmakers Uraaz Bahl and his wife, Shaana Levy-Bahl, the film garnered the best documentary award at both the London Independent Film Festival and New York Film Awards last year, and best inspirational film at the Los Angeles Film Awards, among its many honours to date.
'Wanting to do something, and being blocked for silly reasons'
“Unlike most stories, this film came from a very dark place,” says Bahl. “I was going through a very dark time in my life. I was trying to do something good to help the people of our country – and for many reasons, the government kept on blocking me. It was very depressing.
“Then one day I read the story about this girl who was extremely talented, came from a very small village and was extremely poor – and wanted to go to the Olympics. She had qualified for the Olympics – but wasn’t getting the support she needed from India to get the right kind of training and mental coaching.
“And I told Shaana, like, ‘that story’s my story, I understand her story. I understand the pain of wanting to do something… and being blocked for silly reasons.’ So, literally on a whim, we decided we’re going to make this film. I told my wife that we should go to this village in the middle of absolutely nowhere and make this film. And she said, ‘yeah, let’s do it’. In nine days, we were on a plane with our crew.”
This was the beginning of a three-year cinematic odyssey, leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio for the filmmakers, who had never met Kumari, the daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver and a nurse in Ratu Chati, a remote village in Jharkhand state, in north-east India.
How Kumari shot through the resistance
Before the filmmakers’ arrival, Kumari already had the makings of a local legend, but very little local encouragement. Villagers who had watched her as a schoolgirl – practising her aim by targeting the fruit on mango trees, and seldom missing with her homemade bamboo bow and arrows – still doubted she could, or even should, attempt a career of archery. It was only when scouts from the nearby Seraikela-Kharsawan Archery Academy spotted her as a precocious 11-year-old in 2005 that she began to receive proper instruction.
Despite her promise, her parents threw up a wall of even stiffer resistance. She told The Times of India: "My family were not very keen on my taking up the sport professionally. My mother is very conservative and even my father was dead against my decision."
Her 2009 win at the 11th Youth World Archery Championship in Ogden, Utah in the US finally tipped her family’s opinion, slightly, in her favour.
Kumari, now 23, went on to win even more medals in global competitions and by 2012 had become No 1 in the world in Women's Recurve Archery, and a competitor in the 2012 London Olympics.
A recurve bow has limbs, or tips, that curve away from the archer when unstrung. They allow the bow to store and deliver more energy, more efficiently, than a straight-limbed bow. This gives more energy and speed to the arrow.
More success followed for Kumari – who is ranked fifth in her sport – but as she prepared for the Rio games in 2015, it became clear she could use any and all the help she could get, if she were to represent her homeland in Brazil.
“In our film, we use the Olympics as a barometer for gender equality because we show that women – who come from countries that don’t value women – will never win an Olympic gold medal,” says Bahl. “When you get to the Olympics, as we show in our film, Deepika is probably the most talented archer in the world. She breaks world records at whim. She’s won numerous world cups, world championships, everything.
“But the Olympics is a different circus. When you get to that stage, everyone is pretty much evenly talented. But women who come from countries that value them have that sense of confidence. Women who come from cultures where women are marginalised – when they get to that platform they don’t believe that they deserve to win because of generations of indoctrination that women are not good enough.”
In its brief 39 minutes, Ladies First proves the lie to this line of thinking, and also explores not just the challenges Kumari still faces on the archery field – but the challenges that Indian culture places on female athletes. "The sad part is, in India … every time a girl child shows some sort of inclination towards having some sort of a career, or having some sort of a dream, families always say, 'no, your place is in the home. You need to learn how to cook. You need to learn how to wash.'
“The worst happens to girls, as we discovered in our film, when they hit puberty and their bodies start changing. Then there’s huge body shaming that happens.
"There are people in Deepika's village who would rather she stay at home than compete in the Olympics in short pants," says Bahl. "So that's the mindset that this girl, this super-talented girl, has to face on an everyday basis."
“I want my story to inspire every girl,” says Kumari. “In our country, even those who are well-educated, believe that girls cannot play sports. In my opinion, they are crazy.”
Ladies First is available for streaming on Netflix from Thursday