When Ameesha Joshi and Anna Sarkissian returned to Canada in 2006 after spending two months at a training camp in Delhi for the Indian women boxing team, they thought they had their film in place. But once they started sifting through the footage they had acquired, the Canada-based documentary filmmakers realised that something was amiss. Although they had captured the hard work put in by these women to make a career in boxing, the narrative lacked their personal stories. “We had gone there wanting to project the challenges a woman in India faces when she takes up a career as unconventional as boxing. But that wasn’t coming through,” recounts Sarkissian. The duo would spend a decade on the project that is now ready as a documentary, titled With this Ring.
The 90-minute film, which premiered at the Mumbai International Film Festival in January this year, is having multiple screenings in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Pune and Indore over the next few weeks (details on withthisringfilm.com). However, Joshi, who is currently in India, and her co-director admit that the film has come a long way from what they had earlier conceived, as is true for most documentaries.
With this Ring, with three Indian women pugilists — MC Mary Kom, Sarita Devi and Chhoto Loura — as protagonists, looks at the struggle of women sportspersons, their aspirations and journeys. While the directors were sure even in 2008, when they began to trail the boxing team, that Mary
Kom would emerge as one of their key characters, it took a while to zero in on Loura and Sarita. “Mary Kom was already successful then but wasn’t famous. But there was something about her that made us take a keen interest,” explains Sarkissian.
With Sarita, among the top three Indian women pugilists who would later come to be remembered for her refusal to accept the bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games, the directors were taken in by the contrast between her shy personality and fierce boxing skills. “Chhoto became our friend by the end of the trail but it was her complexity that we found interesting. She was the only one who wasn’t affected by success or failure but driven by her pure passion and love for the sport. It drove the young girl from Haryana to fight not only against the conservative society, but also her severe injuries to emerge among the top three at the time,” Sarkissian adds.
Joshi and Sarkissian say the film also helped them understand the passion and desperation to succeed in a sporting career — most of these boxers are from financially weak backgrounds and a career in sports is their hope to change their circumstances. “This was while filming at a training camp in Vizag. It was 45 degrees outside and we were in a closed room dripping with sweat. But these women, in full gear, came for the practice and were at it for two hours without a pause,” Sarkissian recounts. Joshi adds that success and medals also help bring around families who were perhaps earlier opposing their decision.
In the process of understanding the characters, the makers have travelled extensively with the protagonists — to China, Barbados, the UK and several Indian cities, including their hometowns. During the stint in Manipur, home to both Mary Kom and Sarita, they also look at the factors that make the state a big contributor to Indian sports.
However, where the documentary stands out is in its unbiased portrayal of the sporting icon Mary Kom. During the course of the trail, the makers have explored the grey areas in the selection process, the alleged favouritism Mary Kom enjoys among the selectors and the resentment that brews within the Indian women’s boxing team. “For us, it was a part of the exploration of the characters. They work so hard to succeed but they don’t just fight their families and the conservative societal norms, but also have to deal with the politics of the sports,” explains Joshi, a Canadian of Indian origin who met Sarkissian in Montreal at the university. She adds that while Sarita has watched the film, Loura and Mary Kom are yet to see it.
Once the makers had the material they needed, finding a competent editor proved a challenge too. The duo brought on board Jackie Dzuba, who was located 5,000 kilometres away from them. “It took us two years but now we are ready to show the film in India,” says Joshi.