When Deepika Kumari was 12 years old, she decided to pursue archery at the Tata Archery Academy in 2006. After years of using a wooden bow and arrow and shooting fruit targets off trees, she got a real, modern bow in her hands and shot to the top of the sport. 12 years later, Kumari is the subject of her very own documentary, Ladies First on Netflix, a feminist film worth watching as you celebrate International Women's Day and Women's History Month.
Ladies First isn't just a sports documentary; it's a story of female empowerment and economic struggles. Just a handful of years before winning the 2012 Archery World Cup and becoming the number one archer in the world at just 18 years old, Kumari had one goal: to escape the poverty she was born into. The daughter of a rickshaw driver and a nurse, raised in an Indian village near Ranchi, Jharkhand, Kumari left home at 12 years old to pursue a career that would hopefully allow her to help support her family.
"Our financial situation was desperate. Struggling to make ends meet we often didn't have enough food to go around," Kumari wrote in an article for The Huffington Post UK. So, she said, she sought a spot at the Tata Archery Academy, where she was promised one meal a day and free housing. "Frankly, I did not know what archery even was, but I had quickly grown to love it," she wrote of her time there.
As shown in the documentary, Kumari faced more than her fair share of obstacles to pursue the sport she loves, including doubt from her own family and those around her, many of whom believed that her gender disqualified her from playing any sport, let alone shooting arrows. Barely any women worked in her home village, and girls were not encouraged to stay in school through their teens. "My father was firmly against girls playing sports," Kumari wrote in The Huffington Post.
Despite the push back from her family, she committed to the sport. And three years later, she became the second Indian to win the Junior Archery World Cup, and in 2010 she took home the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. In 2012, at 17, she won the Archery World Cup and was named the number one women's archer in the world. And, as if that wasn't enough, the teenager found herself the focus of nation-wide attention, a newfound pressure for a young athlete going into her first Olympic Games.
All of these ups and downs are explored in Ladies First, a short documentary premiering on Netflix on International Women's Day, March 8, 2018. But for Kumari, the documentary isn't about celebrating her archery career, it's about changing the perception of women in India. "A friend said that if my life story inspires even one girl-child in India then it has been a life worth living," she wrote in The Huffington Post, adding that friends from her childhood have called her in tears, desperate for their husbands and in-laws to allow them to work for themselves, just as she does. "I knew I might not be able to save them from their situation, but I could help the next generation by not giving up."
Kumari hopes that Ladies First inspires women all over the world to assert their own independence and power, specifically in the workplace and in sports. "The time for ladies first is now," she wrote. Ladies First is the perfect way to celebrate the weekend after International Women's Day because Kumari doesn't just put ladies first, she wants us to put ourselves first.