Some of the most inspirational tales start out because of one’s survival instinct. One such story began in a kuchcha house in Jharkhand and found its way on the Commonwealth podium. Netflix documentary – Ladies First, follows ace Indian archer Deepika Kumari a few weeks before the 2016 Rio Olympics, as she carries the weight of her glorious future as well as her deprived past.
Hailing from a tiny village called Ratu, Deepika’s journey from fulfilling her duties as the eldest daughter of the household, to shouldering the Olympic hopes for a country is worthy of a full length biopic.
We saw a similar story in 2017 film Poorna, where director Rahul Bose recreated the incredible journey of an adivasi girl from Telangana to (literally) the top of the world. Poorna Malavath became the youngest mountaineer to scale Everest at the age of 13, and in many ways Deepika has climbed mountains of her own. But while Rahul Bose’s film took a schmaltzy approach in its fictitious retelling of the incredible true story, Ladies First says a lot more by simply observing and hanging around the Olympian archer.
Much like Poorna, Deepika found her ‘escape’ at a sports facility near her village. They promised accommodation and food if she dilligently practised a sport. Growing up in a house where shouting matches and fights were the norm, Deepika picked up a bow and aimed her arrows at an entire culture of naysayers.
One of the best things about Ladies First is how rarely it sentimentalises Deepika’s journey. Stories ranging from her impoverished background, to the mind of a young champion and the need for mental conditioning – the documentary fits everything within a brisk running time of 40 minutes. One of the documentary’s telling visuals is when Deepika breaks down after being hounded with questions following a defeat.
23-year-old Deepika Kumari recounts her life experiences with an air of honesty, a smile always accompanying the stories. Everything, except conversation around her losses. Her father (an autorickshaw-driver by profession) points at the pakka makaan they reside in, and proudly says that his contribution to its construction isn’t a single rupee. Deepika mentions her neighbours who look on with envy and say unsavoury things. “In my humble opinion, such people are insane” – Deepika says while flashing her confident smile.
Deepika Kumari’s story reflects the lack of respect given to female athletes in developing countries. Fighting a patriarchal establishment that mocks them with their ancient mindset, overcoming the lack of facilities compared to their male counterparts, somehow if these athletes even make it to the world stage, how are they to compete with their well-rested opponents from Japan, USA and Korea.
The film leaves us with a glaring statistic – of how no woman from a developing nation has won an Olympic gold. As Deepika Kumari fights the universe and tries to change that, the fire in her eyes might be an indication of the storm coming. Whether she wins a gold or gets agonisingly close (like PV Sindhu), her quest will be an important one.