There is a moment in Uraaz Bahl’s documentary about Indian archery champ Deepika Kumari when the young woman profiled turns the film’s title Ladies First on its head.
She says: “People often use the term, ‘Ladies first’ – especially by those who seem progressive and well-educated.”
Kumari added: “I’ve heard it being said at dinners and parties, where gentlemen say, ‘Ladies first.’
“Why don’t they say this when girls want to advance in life, be it in education or sports? Why not say ‘ladies first,’ when it really matters?”
When you look at the phrase that way, the athlete has a valid point. Directed by Bahl, and produced by his wife Shaana Levy-Bahl, Ladies First follows Kumari on her quest to win a gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Born into poverty in a remote village – the daughter of a rickshaw driver – Kumari defied all odds to become, at one point, the world’s No. 1 female archer.
Her story of poverty to triumph could mirror that of U.S. tennis champs Serena and Venus Williams. But, like many female athletes from her part of the world, she lacks the financial and moral support to truly flourish at the Olympic level.
Bahl stumbled across Kumari’s story last year while sitting in his Mumbai home reading a newspaper. Then 21, with a string of medals and trophies to her name, she was determined to become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic gold.
Bahl recalls his initial thoughts about Kumari, saying: “This girl is so talented. The government keeps promising to give her a mental coach and the right kind of facility, but it never happens.
“And she’s going to go to another Olympics and we’re going to be wasting another talented Indian.”
Watching Kumari’s story unfold in Ladies First, you can understand his frustration. In a country where – according to the National Crime Records Bureau – 20 women are killed daily over dowry issues, and 80 girls are killed an hour at, or before, birth it’s a miracle that she has overcome the social and economic obstacles to secure her place as an archery champ.
In the India the Bahls present, children have two role models – Bollywood stars and cricketers. At a Los Angeles film screening the director said: “A girl growing up in a village knows, ‘I’m never going to be a Bollywood star. I’m never going to be a cricketer.’”
Instead, she faces marriage at 14 or 15. That prospect in a nation that has achieved something the U.S. still hasn’t managed – to elect a woman to run the country – is heartbreaking.
Bahl says: “It’s so crazy in India. [We have] one of the only religions, like Hinduism, that worships goddesses.
“We were the second country in the world to elect a female head of state – way before England did…"
“If you come from the right socio-economic family like [former prime minister] Indira Gandhi did, you will do well."
“The place of a woman is very clearly related to where she is brought up.”
And this is where the profile of Kumari presented in Ladies First both frustrates and inspires. She presents a new kind of role model for Indian girls, but you wouldn’t know it based on her tumultuous relationship with the press and the government.
At times she is hailed as a great hope because of her rags to riches tale and her talent. But, behind the scenes, she is not given the tools to truly compete on a world stage – whether that is (until recently) a mental coach, or help to organize her travel arrangements; the type of things you wouldn’t expect the Williams sisters to have to deal with.Yet when Kumari fails to bring home an Olympic gold – as she did in 2012 and 2016 – she is slammed for choking at the final hurdle.
Shaana Levy-Bahl and Uraaz Bahl
Ladies First does offer hope though. There is a scene towards the end of the film in which Kumari talks to a group of teen, female archers who aspire to follow in her footsteps. She suggests they look at online videos for tips on brushing up their skills. It is this – the Internet – that offers her peers a lifeline, a window into the opportunities that could be available to them.
In some ways, Kumari is sport’s answer to Malala Yousafzai. She is a real-world example to herself and others that, with determination and grit, girls can achieve anything in the face of extraordinary obstacles. Her decision to succeed in spite of forces willing her to fail is an example to us all.
And that is what the filmmakers want us to take away from Ladies First. Levy-Bahl says: “This is not about how many medals we make. It’s really, for us, about empowering girls, making sure they break boundaries, just like Deepika does.”
Ladies First will be available on Netflix from March 8.