Films have always fascinated me, and as a kid I would pretend I was directing Tom and Jerry’s chase sequences! Somewhere along the way my childhood dream got pushed to the side as in India that was not a realistic career path.
In 2008 I got my masters degree from Columbia University, and was overflowing with enthusiasm at the rapidly growing Indian economy, I was convinced that real estate was the career for me. I started a company and partnered with a large Indian conglomerate to develop a residential township outside Mumbai.
My sheltered upbringing had ill prepared for the harsh realities of India’s real estate business. For 10 years I dealt with India's crippling bureaucracy and corruption that tested my moral compass. I would hate going to work, was overcome with a cocktail of negativity and eventually fell into a deep depression.
To quote Mother Superior from my mother’s favorite film, The Sound of Music, “When the lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” For me that window was meeting my actor, writer, producer wife Shaana Levy who made me want to me a better man, and forced me to dig deep and pull myself out of the hole of self pity and take charge of my life.
In December 2015 I was reading the Sunday papers when I came across an article about Deepika Kumari, a young woman from a small village in Jharkhand, who’s father was a rickshaw driver, and who had risen to become the number 1 archer in the world. Deepika had qualified for the Olympic Games in Rio, but was in desperate need of a proper professional support team as well as the facilities required to win an Olympic medal and be on an even playing field with other archers across the world. It was painfully obvious that the Indian sports system had failed her, and that Deepika’s talent would be another casualty of India’s suffocating bureaucracy. I connected with her story, and without ever meeting her decided that I had to tell Deepika’s story!
Driven by nothing more than passion, Shaana and I started aggressively researching everything about Deepika’s life. We contacted the Tata Academy where Deepika trained, and they told us if we wanted to interview Deepika we had only two weeks before she went into the Government training camps! The last thing I wanted to do was deal with the government again, so we had no time to think and just jumped into our first production! Looking back, I am so glad we rushed into this film as I am sure if I had more time to think about my decision I would have found a millions reasons not to do it! There began our liberating and life-changing three-year journey with Ladies First.
We were faced with numerous challenges during production! Deepika’s village is located in the heart of Maoist territory, where a raging war with the Indian security forces and kidnappings are common. We certainly had some nerve-racking moments driving passed areas where the day before policemen had been murdered and hung.
Our biggest challenge was the fact that we shot the entire film believing Deepika was going to win an Olympic medal! When she lost, we were completely devastated and suddenly had no idea how we were going to end our film. After many conversations with Deepika, we realized that it was her “never give up” attitude that was inspiring, the medal was incidental; she was already a winner and her story was already changing lives of other girls in her village as they said “If she can do it, so can we!”
Deepika has now become like a younger sister to us, and making this film with my wife has been the greatest joy of my life. Deepika is breaking barriers for women in India, and we are privileged to tell her story. We hope Deepika’s story can help shatter India’s tragedy of small expectations for girls and put LADIES FIRST!
As a first time director, getting to work with an incredible young woman like Deepika, who is absolutely magical on screen is a dream come true. Making short documentaries is far less lucrative than developing real estate, and unfortunately in India success and happiness are closely related to your bank balance. Maybe making a huge mistake by changing careers, but I wake up every morning happier and more excited than I’ve ever been, and that has to count for something.
Ladies First is streaming on Netflix beginning this March 8th – International Women’s Day – as India’s first Netflix Original Documentary. You can stream it here.
Uraaz Bahl is a first time director based in Mumbai, India. Uraaz was schooled in India and England, and graduated from Boston University. Films have always been his passion, and after graduation he was accepted to UCLA film school, but was unable to attend as he returned home to be with his mother who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He then went on to join his family’s manufacturing business. In 2008 Uraaz got his Masters from Columbia University, and launched a real estate company.
Shaana Levy is an actor/producer born in Kenya to a Swiss Jewish father and an Indian mother. She grew up in Zurich and London and is now based between Mumbai, London, Mallorca and Los Angeles. Shaana studied Theatre and Film at Yale Drama School, Michael Howard Studios, and The Beverly Hills Playhouse whilst attending Columbia University. Shaana gained valuable production knowledge with Mira Nair at Mirabai Films and at Steve Tisch’s Production Company. In 2009, Shaana executive produced WEST IS WEST, the sequel to BAFTA award winning ‘East is East’, which premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. Shaana has been working on a globally topical documentary called POWER, which tackles the colossal topic of energy security. She has just produced the documentary short LADIES FIRST about the meteoric success and struggles of Indian archer, Deepika Kumari.