MC Mary Kom and Sarita Devi have a lot in common. Both women from Manipur started their careers around the same time, rose from poverty at home and obscurity of the sport to become successful flagbearers for women’s boxing and mothers in sport.
But somewhere along the way, the two had a falling out and it is common knowledge that they do not get along with each other.
Even as the profile of women’s boxing in India rose from a non-Olympic sport to a medal-winning prospect, the bad blood between two of them increased with accusations of favouritism, bribery, jealousy.
But it was not always so. In fact, the two Manipuri boxers were close friends and colleagues who toiled in relative obscurity. Back in the day – before the announcement in 2009 made it an Olympic sport – women’s boxing in India was a whole different game. The women trained together in not the best conditions, helped each other and even instructed each other in empty stadiums at world championships.
This is among the many interesting insights into the rise of women’s boxing in India seen in With This Ring, a feature documentary by two Canadian filmmakers, Ameesha Joshi and Anna Sarkissian, who traced the sport in India from 2006 through the careers of three women – MC Mary Kom, Sarita Devi and Chhoto Loura.
Their journeys turned out to be diametrically different from when it began: Mary Kom is an undisputed global superstar, Sarita faded away and became a pro-boxer while Chhoto gave up boxing... fed up of the politics and bureaucracy and now coaches the next generation.
And therein lies the heart of the documentary, how women’s boxing in India rose from obscurity to gain much but lose a lot as well.
It began with a photograph
The 90-minute film takes the viewer right to the heart of the women’s boxing, from Mary Kom’s humble house in Manipur where she insists they eat the breakfast she is cooking to the 2012 Olympics. It takes you from the training camp to the 2006 World Championship in Delhi where India became the world No 1 team in the world and goes straight till the Olympics, with every World Championship covered from Bridgetown in Barbados to Ningo in China.
Joshi and Sarkissian now 46 and 36, were classmates in the documentary class at the Concordia University when Joshi came across a photo of a woman boxer practicing on a beach in Chennai at World Press Photo Exhibit in 2005.
“That same year I visited India to see family and decided to start my research at the same time. I discovered the women’s boxing camps and how they persevered. When we met them.. I had never seen women like this, they were strong, came from tough backgrounds. The conditions of the players, they were in facilities without AC in the monsoons at Vizag, they had to wash their own clothes... We were straight out of film school and had no money. But this was a story we wanted to tell,” Joshi told Scroll.in from Montreal.
But in 2006, they barely got any footage and it was years before they could gain the trust of the boxers. Some of this initial mistrust was due to how media treated them. “The media was largely disinterested, some of them were talking about how they were stuck covering this when India were actually the No 1 team in that World Championship.”
Joshi gave the example of Irish boxer Katie Taylor, who was also a five-time world champion like Mary Kom and whose career they followed through the years of making the film. “Her country celebrated her right from the beginning, she was a star from 2006. But in India, the sports section was dominated by cricket even in a year the team was not doing well,” she explained.
They returned in 2008 with a grant from the Canadian government. “It was still a shoestring budget, but it was something,” Joshi added.
The filmmakers soon got unique access to their lives before the stardom: Mary Kom feeding her toddler twins while practising or teaching them to write, even Sarita playing with the kids.
But given the places the subject took them to, it was not an easy path. “We survived only on bananas the first month. The language barrier was just as tough. We enlisted the help of school students or I would call my mother in Canada for phonetic translations. But we learnt a lot from looking at the body language of the players as well,” Joshi added.
But the turning point for the documentary came soon after when it was announced that women’s boxing was now an Olympic sport, changing the face of the sport in India, both for better and worse.
With only three weight categories in London, the pugilists had to adjust their weights which created conflict which devolved into chaos. But it also gave With This Ring its most compelling aspect, as the controversy over the 2010 Asian Games selection unfolded.
Both Sarita Devi and Mary Kom fought in the same 51kg category but for some reason, there were two trials with different results. Sarita says she had beaten Mary in the first trial but had to give a retrial, which Mary won. She goes on to say that she was told of retrial her bout at the world championship which affected her morale. Furthermore, at the 2008 World Championship, the coach openly says that there more hope from Sarita than Mary to clinch gold but she lacks the willpower of her compatriot.
While the documentary gives both boxers’ versions of the events, it shows a whole different side to the state of women’s boxing in India.
It was this unpleasantness that prompted Chhoto to give up. The Haryana boxer is an intriguing character who seems to have fallen off the map. She came back from a life-threatening accident in 2002, her house was burgled and had nothing but she said her losses in the ring affected her more. She refused to get married either, all to focus on her sport. But she quit it all because of the level of politics.
The filmmakers continued to follow the Indian team to the World Championship, not filming the bouts now as new rules came in. They were there when Mary Kom won her Olympics medal in London and where she trained before.
But it took more than a decade for the documentary to be ready. The anonymity the sport enjoyed before 2012 helped in filming but that changed.
“We had 200 hours of footage for a 90-minute film so the post production took years as well. But we found an award-winning editor in Jackie Dzuba who practically worked for peanuts and we were able to bring this completely-women made film out. Anna shot the full film, so the female gaze was an integral part of With This Ring,” Joshi explained.
Joshi has witnessed the change that has happened in the time she and Sarkissan followed the story, and is pleased with it. “From no one in the streets knowing her to now her being quotes on Google homepage on the occasion of Women’s Day... it took an Olympic medal and then the biopic to change the mindset.”
This change, despite the varied consequence, was a huge moment for Indian sport. And it all began in a simple house in Manipur, which can be seen in detail in this documentary.
With This Ring is available on YouTube. You can watch the documentary here