Thulasi is a Dalit, a girl from the lowest rung of the antiquated caste system in India. If you’re not familiar with the dangers of being an “untouchable”, this piece by Dalit artist and filmmaker Thenmozhi Soundararajan paints an accurate and bleak picture. “Your family’s caste determines the whole of your life – your job, your level of spiritual purity and your social standing,” she explains. “We live in a caste apartheid with separate villages, places of worship, and even schools. It is a lethal system where, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, four Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched every day.” (Sadly, the incidence of sexual abuse among women in India stretches much further.)
Unwilling to follow a set path laid out by her country or society, 24-year-old Thulasi sees herself as a free bird fleeing from marital subservience, the “jail life” as she calls it. Boxing, a passion for more than 10 years, is her ticket to brighter days. She is in a race against time to win selection for the national games and secure a well-paid job through a national program for athletes, before she reaches her 25th birthday. The training is gruelling, an injury threatens to knock her off course and those in charge at her local boxing club seem less than supportive. Something is amiss.
Apparently, “talent is all you need to succeed” at the club, according to the head official at the Tamil Nadu State Amateur Boxing Association. And Thulasi has it in abundance: we learn that she has already defeated five-time world champion Mary Kom. However as the story unfolds we realise that these women must be willing to give a little more than that behind closed doors.
Away from the ring, Thulasi is living hand to mouth with a surrogate family, adrift from her own. “I walked out of my house because I refused to get my religion changed along with other family members,” she later explained to The Hindu. “My parents were unhappy about my decision and I had to leave. There were times when I would get back home late and there would be lechers making a pass at me. I would beat them up. No one should ever question the strength of a woman, boxer or otherwise.”
When this defiance threatens to deny her a fresh start and alienate her even more, we are left wondering whether resistance is futile for an impoverished woman living in a patriarchal state of India. But Thulasi is an indomitable spirit – taking on a male-dominated society in a male-dominated sport – and you can’t help but have faith in her to find a way through. The signs are encouraging: now a trainer at a gym called Combat Kinetics, she plans to open her own boxing club one day.
New generations using sport to overcome financial, political and class handicaps have often made excellent subject matter for filmmakers. Sons of Cuba immediately springs to mind. And like all good documentaries, Like Fly, Fly High makes us care about the star – we're rooting for her from the off. First-time directors Beathe Hofseth and Susann Østigaard let the drama of everyday life take hold – employing a fly-on-the-wall style with minimal narration – never once trying to heavy-handedly disparage a character or engineer tension. The struggle for freedom and progress is something that we can all identify with, wherever we come from. Thulasi is a compelling subject, commanding the screen in any number of situations: contemplating life on her bed, debating the subject of marriage with surrogate mother Helenma or throwing lefts and rights in the ring.
Inspired by Miriam Dalsgaard's photo essay about female boxers in India, Hofseth and Østigaard began thinking about making a film as early as 2005 but it wasn’t until they met Thulasi at Nehru stadium in 2010 that they realised they had to make this film. So off they went on a three-year journey to tell her story, during which time they witnessed a troubled girl becoming a confident young woman. Their ability to capture candid moments about corruption and sexual abuse (a huge taboo) is very impressive, but as they explained at a recent event, their star was always determined to change the world by being true to herself…
“In one of the very first interviews we did with Thulasi, she told us that in India most girls sit on the back of their father's, brother's or husband's motorbikes. But one day she was going to drive her very own bike, so that Indian father´s could look at her and realize what their daughters are capable of. She said she wanted to show people that there doesn't have to be a difference between boys and girls. The fact that Thulasi herself wanted to be a role model to others is what eventually made us decide that we wanted to make a documentary about her. Thulasi is a feminist, without even knowing the meaning of that word, she has a message and we felt that her voice deserved to be heard.”
That interview obviously made a huge impression on the directors. Look at the opening and closing moments of the film and you'll see what I mean. Highly recommended and compelling to the core.
'Light Fly, Fly High', winner of the 2013 Oxfam Global Justice Award and the Best Documentary award at the 2014 One World Media Awards, will be shown at selected film festivals throughout the summer. For forthcoming screenings, click here.