Documenting the fight of women boxers in India

Documenting the fight of women boxers in India

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 9 April, 2016
A still from the documentary With this Ring.

It all began in 2005, when Ameesha Joshi attended the World Press Photo exhibit in Montreal where she saw the images by Danish photographer Miriam K.S. Dalsgaard of some girls boxing on the beach in Chennai, India. Due to her upbringing in a typical Indian household in Toronto, she understood that back home in India it must be really hard for these women to pursue a career in boxing. 

While researching on the women boxing scene in India, she found some interesting facts. She was surprised to find that apart from having a proper infrastructure; Indian boxers had also bagged many international medals. 

It is then, Ameesha decided teamed up with filmmaker writer and anthropologist Anna Sarkissian for documenting Indian women boxing. She and Anna flew came to India for the 4th AIBA World Women’s Boxing Championships, where the Indian team became the number one team in the world, winning medals in eight out of 13 categories.    For the next six years, she and Anna set out to document the lives of women boxers of India.

The documentary features three women boxers —MC Mary Kom, Sarita Devi and Chhoto Laura. It explores the internal world of these boxers, their joys and struggles that they face in everyday life. Not just this, the documentary also highlights the role of their family members and how they stood with these boxers during tough times. However, there is a sense of negligence associated with sports in general other than cricket. So much so that when people were shown some pictures of the boxers, they were hardly able to recognise them. They were clueless about the sport they belonged to and also whether the players belong to India or not. Not surprising, considering this a nation where cricket is somewhat like a cult in itself. In the documentary, a man clearly says, “It is the cricket we watch more.”

The lack of attention given to women boxing is a result of failure of the authorities to promote and support the game.

It was only after London Olympics where Mary Kom won the Bronze in 2012 that sport began to get due recognition. The release of Priyanka Chopra starrer biopic on Mary Kom in 2014 further enhanced the sport’s popularity.

The documentary starts and ends with a wall mural that says, “Save the girl child.” It is not just about saving girls but also about what needs to be done to fill colours of hope and dreams in their lives. In India due to family pressure many women do not take up boxing as a profession and the general attitude is that a demure, beautiful girl with long flowing hair who would cook chappatis for you. Most families don’t allow their daughters to take up boxing as a profession as they fear she might end up getting a grave injury. More so they fear she might disfigure her face.

The documentary carefully brings out the opinions of women on the sport. The women passing by the training camp throw gazes on the players as if they are doing something weird. A woman says, “They are degrading the women in general by wearing such clothes.”

The urge to succeed and make a name in boxing encouraged these women push their limits. According to the documentary, there was a joy in the heart of Mary when she won the Asian Games and Olympic medal.

The struggle is long and tough for women boxers in India. While Sarita Devi and MC Mary Kom gets the support from their families; Chhoto Laura’s family doesn’t even know that she once was the third best boxer in the world.

While Mary is resilient and continues to pursue her dreams even after marriage, Chhoto chose to quit due to growing politics in the game. She currently coaches in Ambala, Haryana. The documentary blatantly also points out at some differences between Sarita and Mary both the pioneers of the sport. 

The urge to succeed and make a name in boxing encouraged these women push their limits. According to the documentary, there was a joy in the heart of Mary when she won the Asian Games and Olympic medal. She came to be known as “Magnificient Mary”.

There is no dearth of talent but the politics associated with the sport and pressure of marriage looms large on the boxers. The training schedules are long and tiring and overall a strong mental attitude is needed to win or stay in the game.  As the boxers would say, “When people are looking at us and thinking certain things we ignore them.”

Guardian 20 had an opportunity to speak to the filmmakers. Excerpts from the interview:


Q. What are the challenges that you had to face during the filming or pre-production stage?

A. There were several challenges during the filming of this documentary, one of the toughest being the language barrier.  Anna doesn’t speak Hindi and since I was born and raised in Canada I can understand a little but cannot speak Hindi at all.   It is very difficult to know your characters beyond a superficial level when you do not speak the same language.  We tried to find translators to assist during interviews, and when that was not possible we called someone we knew back home in Canada to help us write out the questions phonetically in Hindi.  We then had to wait until we got back home to translate their answers.

Limited access to our characters was another significant challenge we faced.  Access to your characters is key, when making a documentary and we had very little.  The boxers train three times a day, six days a week, 10 months of the year.  Their daily regiment is as follows:  wake up, work out, eat, rest, wash their clothes and repeat this cycle two more times until the end of the day. Sunday was their only day off in the week and understandably they don’t necessarily want to spend it being interviewed.  Their busy schedules limited our one-on-one time which definitely added to the amount of time it took to determine who are characters were going to be and getting the footage we needed of each of them to tell their stories.

We were also working with a small budget, which certainly created limitations during our shoots and required us to stretch our funds carefully over our six year production period which included 4 trips to India, 2 to China, 1 to Barbados and a two week trip around Ontario when the team visited Canada.

I would also add filming in India during monsoon season as one of the tougher experiences we faced.  The boxers were training in Vishakapatnam and Hisar where the temperatures averaged around 40-45 degrees Celsius.  I remember Anna, who is also the cinematographer, just standing there dripping sweat onto the camera as she filmed.  Although we found it incredibly hot we wouldn’t dare complain because the boxers were training intensely in this heat.  Their facilities at the time were not equipped with any air conditioning not to mention they often faced electricity shortages and a lack of running water.  We were impressed how they could withstand rigorous workouts in these conditions and were able to adjust to any situation thrown their way.

Q. After watching the film what were the reactions of the players?

A. The boxers and coaches watched the film for the first time at our Delhi Premiere this March.   Observing their reactions during the screening there was much laughter and whispering among them.  I got the sense it was interesting for them to see their world up there on the screen.  Overall they enjoyed the film and the coaches thanked us after it was all over.  It was a very good feeling to present the film to them after all these years.

Q: Did Ameesha face any parental pressure for marriage at home? If yes, how did she cope up with the same?

A. I was fortunate and did not face pressure from my parents to marry but many of my close Indian friends did so am aware of the stresses of being in this situation. 

Q. What advice you would like to give to young filmmakers both in India and abroad?

A.  It may sound cliché but my advice would be to persevere no matter how hard it gets.  It was a long journey to make this film, with many hurdles but I learned hard work and not giving up always pays off in the end.   I would also encourage young filmmakers to find and develop their own unique voice and to make work from an honest place.

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