Film: “Untouchable” Indian boxer fights for her independence

by Shanshan Chen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 June 2014 14:14 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Film portrays Indian boxer determined to succeed despite her low caste and dominating husband

When Thulasi, born to a low-caste family in southern India, turned 14, her family forced her to marry an older man her father knew from church. Thulasi rejected him and ran away. After two years of sleeping rough and in hostels, she was taken in by a new family and discovered she had a passion for boxing.

By the age of 24, she had fought her way to the number 3 ranking in India and had beaten five-times world champion Mary Kom, who had represented India at the Olympics. But her adoptive family had gone into debt paying for her training and she was keen to be independent.

Thulasi learned that if she won a tournament before her 25th birthday, in 2010, she could be considered for a government programme that would give her a permanent job and let her pursue her boxing career.

She was then forced to make a life-changing decision.

A.K. Karuna, secretary of the State Boxing Association in India, asked Thulasi for cash and sexual favours if she wanted to be considered for the government programme.

Thulasi realised she was not the only woman who had been subjected to Karuna’s demands, and decided to expose him.

Karuna was arrested, but Thulasi’s boxing club was closed down, and her chances of winning independence through boxing shrank alarmingly.

"Even if my boxing life might be lost, I should save the other girls,” says Thulasi in the award-winning documentary about her life and career "Light Fly, Fly High".

The film shows how Thulasi, like many girls born into the "Dalit" or "untouchable" caste in India, chose boxing as their ticket to a better life.

"In India, a certain percentage of jobs are given to athletes", says Susann Østigaard, co-director of the film. Boxing is a relatively inexpensive sport - boys and girls from poor families need only bare hands to start training.

"Girls from the upper or upper middle class will never go into boxing - they won't risk having their faces destroyed, or they might not get married", says Østigaard, "I don't think parents are OK with their girls boxing, but if it is for the good of the family or for economic reasons, parents from a poor family will accept putting their daughters in the ring."

Many female boxers succumb to the under-the-table deals of the business. “It could be a good chance for a lot of people, but there is lots of corruption and sexual harassment”, says Østigaard, “Many girls got jobs through boxing not necessarily because of their talent, but because they’ve paid or done other things that they (the people in power) have asked.”

After her boxing club closed, Thulasi had to agree to marry, like many other young women in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. But after only three months she divorced her husband because she could not tolerate the restrictions he imposed on her: she could not make phone calls, have a facebook account, or work.

"We are expected to be obedient and follow a set path. But this is my life", says Thulasi. "Girls like me of a lower caste have no value. Because I was born Dalit, I'm expected to stay at the bottom. But I dream of a different life."

“The first thing she said (to us) made us want to make this film,” says Østigaard. “In India, all the girls ride on the back of their father's, husband's or brother's bike.

“But Thulasi told us that one day she wants to have her own motorcycle, so that Indian fathers can look at her and realise what their daughters are capable of.”

"Light Fly, Fly High" will be screened in London on June 6, 2014 as part of the DocHouse documentary festival.

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