Netflix Documentary ‘Ladies First’ Tells Story of Determined Indian Archer Deepika Kumari

With another Olympics having recently passed, viewers are reminded that the games aren’t just about watching countries like the United States and Norway rack up medal after medal, but also about bringing athletes from all over the world together in one place. Even those from developing countries whose flags we rarely see raised over a podium get their chance to shine with the whole world watching. One such athlete, Indian archer Deepika Kumari, is the focus of the eye-opening Netflix documentary “Ladies First.” Born on the roadside in one of the poorest parts of India, Deepika became the number one women’s archer in the world at age 18 in 2012, an achievement that is astonishing not only due to the fact that she hails from a developing country, but also one where only one percent of girls participate in organized sports. Four years later, husband and wife documentarians Uraaz Bahl and Shaana Levy-Bahl followed Deepika’s journey as she headed to Rio with dreams of becoming the first-ever Indian woman to nab an Olympic gold medal. The doc’s title comes from a question posed by Deepika herself: Why can’t the chivalrous policy apply to the all women when it comes to sports and education?

Watching “Ladies First,” one can see obvious parallels between Deepika’s story and that of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education and Nobel Prize laureate. The key similarity between the two is that both young women have supportive parents. During her childhood, Deepika’s mother, Geeta, a nurse, was one of the few working mothers in the area. Societal pressures kept Deepika, the oldest child, stuck at home for much of her childhood. Like Malala, Deepika grew up being especially close to a father who rejected the the mindset that a daughter shouldn’t have any aspirations beyond marriage and motherhood. With dreams of pulling her family out of poverty, Deepika left her village at a young age, possibly escaping an early marriage, a fate all too common for girls in a country where half of them are married off before age 18. After hearing about an academy where students can study archery free of charge, Deepika headed there at age 12 and never looked back.

Like “He Named Me Malala” and “Girl Rising,” two other powerful documentaries about girls in developing parts of the world, “Ladies First” lays emphasis on the importance of female empowerment and education. A strong support system and open-mindness can go a long way when it comes to women having more opportunities all over the world, and this is a message that can’t be be stressed enough. But what “Ladies First” also does in its 40 minutes is shed light on the plight of athletes in third-world countries and the obstacles they face when competing at the international level. The obvious one is the lack of facilities and equipment on par with what is available in more developed countries, but there are other difficulties. At the London Olympics, Deepika loses out early on, partially due to pressure. Footage from that time show her breaking down, crying about her overwhelming schedule. What many Olympic fans do not realize is that the larger teams have mental health professional, as well as nutritionists, that travel with them, resources the teams from the poorer countries like India lack. Deepika makes the point that the athletes from the likes of South Korea and China aren’t necessarily more skilled than those from India, but they are stronger mentally.

Deepika is a compelling subject for a documentary and a great model for young girls – Not for nothing is Netflix releasing “Ladies First” on International Women’s Day. More than once she is shown asserting herself, behaving as her own advocate. Bahl and Levy-Bahl do an excellent job of balancing the highs with the lows. In addition to all the hardships she faces due to her background, Deepika also has to deal with obstacles common to any athlete no matter where he or she is from, such as dealing with an injury right before a major competition. The filmmakers also deserve kudos for not trying to hard to tie up the story nicely with a bow. Deepika’s journey here has a bittersweet end, but it is a hopeful one and ideally she will become a more visible figure in the months to come.

Ladies First” premieres March 8 on Netflix.