Deepika Kumari India’s renowned woman archer was born in June 1994. She was born was 15 km from Ranchi at a place called Ratu Chati. Deepika’s father Shivnath Mahato drove an auto-rickshaw for a living, and her mother, Geeta Mahato, was a nurse at the Ranchi Medical College. Her mother had a dream of seeing Deepika accomplish big things in life. Deepika spent her holidays at her grandmother’s home. A cousin once told her that she was learning archery. Deepika also started to practice with her own homegrown apparatus, hitting mangoes hanging from trees as the target. Deepika Kumari then 11, heard her cousin Vidya Kumari was getting trained in archery at the Tata Archery Academy.
She asked Vidya how she got admission in the academy and got to know that she was selected through a competition at school. Deepika also walked into the academy and asked to be admitted. She was then directed to the Arjun Archery Academy, an institute by the former Jharkhand CM’s wife Meera Munda. She pleaded with them to train her for just three months and said that they should throw her out if she fails to get better by then. “My mum and dad, on the other hand, argued I was too young to live by myself, and that sports was unreliable as a career, and I should focus on studies. Bachpan se main zid karti thi, ki mujhe jaana hai, mujhe jaana hai, I stayed adamant until they relented,” says Deepika Kumari. Within a year, through her hard work and dedication she joined the Tata Academy, where she practiced for the first time with formal equipments and got a stipend of Rs 500. “At Tata, I started competing more, got better coaches and training, and life also got better as there were proper food and living conditions. Watching my seniors there, who had won various competitions – I would get inspired and motivated to win too,” she remembers.
In 2009 Deepika Kumari became the second Indian archer, after Palton Hansda, to win the Cadet World Archery Championship title. Later that year, she won the Youth World Archery Championship in the US – and her winning spree continued. Her stellar performance in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, held in New Delhi, India where she won Gold Medals presented her to the world as a formidable new entry. At the Asian Games later that year, she helped her team snag a podium finish in the Women’s Recurve.
By 2012, Deepika had won her first Archery World Cup individual recurve gold medal at Antalya, Turkey, which not only catapulted her to the world number one position but also made her a worthy recipient of the Arjuna Award. However, at the London Olympics later that year, she lost in the opening round. But the wins continued in a sometimes choppy but mostly fruitful three-year period before Rio in 2016, she bagged several silvers and bronzes, and even a few golds at various Archery World Cups.
“The government is helping athletes, but the timing and coordination aren’t proper. The main challenge was that we never received everything we needed, on time. We get the necessary resources only two or three months before the competition, which is something we can’t utilise, and get used to quickly. We can’t plan for the whole year or travel abroad. Several times, when you go out, the government organises impromptu trials here, on short notice. It’s like, humaari koi aukaat hi nahi hai. But I cannot quit, so I just think to myself, till I cannot change it, I have to make the best of what is available,” she recounts.
Deepika Kumari had been struggling with the bureaucracy and general non-co-operation when a tycoon in the construction field was facing the same problems. Uraaz Bahl had been struggling with the government for countless stalled clearances on an affordable housing project he had planned and was puzzled when he saw Deepika’s story on television. He related to her struggles as if they were his own, and was motivated to tell her story and try and improve her situation. He discussed it with his wife Shaana Levy, and in a couple of weeks, they had a small film crew and headed straight to Jamshedpur to meet Deepika and start shooting.
Deepika Kumari told “When I lost in Rio, they were the only one among the journalists and filmmakers that had shot with me, to actually call and check in on me. No one from the federation, the government or even my family called,” The government did, however, present her the Padma Shri later that year, upon her return.
The 39-minute documentary, Ladies First, won over 16 international awards – and found a champion and producer in two-time Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy – who watched the film at one of the festivals and was very impressed with her. Once the Netflix deal was locked in in October 2017, the rest, as they say, is history. “The best-case scenario is getting Netflix on board – they have revolutionized the documentary space,” says Uraaz.
Now marketed as a Netflix Original, it is available in 190 countries, with subtitles in 28 languages.
“She is a hundred percent golden, and we squander her talent entirely, by not providing the technology, the facility or the funding. All Olympians are empowered by their team, their entourages consist of fifteen people, coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists, sports psychologists – and she doesn’t even have a team. Talent can only get you this far,” he explains, after having personally witnessed all the problems Deepika had narrated in the interviews.
The real problem belongs to our culture says Deepika Kumari “People in the village often tell my parents that I am on the wrong track, but my parents never ever let the negativity reach me, and fend everyone off themselves. There are times when it gets to my mum, but my strategy is simple – I just ignore them and tell my mum the same thing. Ek kaan se suno, doosre se nikal do. Jitna sunoge, utna pareshan hoge, utna time waste karoge, utna tension hoga – it is not worth it!”
Deepika’s message for all young girls is:
“Zid karo, haath-pair patak ke mana lo, but give up mat karo. And win the support of your family. With them by your side, they become your strength, you can answer to anyone and face anything.”