I wanted to investigate how learning to box transforms one as a person
A filmmaker and a multidisciplinary artist, Alka Raghuram has made some unique films like Tired of Dancing, Panchali, and The Ant and The Monkey. Here she talks about yet another unconventional film, Burqa Boxers that narrates the inspirational story of four Muslim women boxers.
What inspired you to make Burqa Boxers?
In the early to mid-2000, the women boxers from Khidirpur (the Muslim dominated neighbourhood of Kolkata) received a lot of press. I was curious to know more about them and find out about their journey. I grew up in Indore, a small town, and I know how difficult it is to break the mould of convention, especially for girls.
When I started filming in 2011, I wanted to investigate how learning to box transforms one as a person and what does it mean to overcome fear. The way the story has developed over four years is such that it has become a portrait of the first few steps towards coming into one’s own identity as an individual, and the grit it takes to pursue dreams.
How did the ITVS Diversity Development Fund come into the picture for this film?
I divide my time between India and the US. ITVS is a wonderful organization that supports documentary filmmakers at different stages of development, production, and post production. Diversity Development Fund is an initiative that invests in research and development of stories from diverse backgrounds. Burqa Boxers received the ITVS Diversity Development Fund in 2011. Receiving it was extremely validating and helped me kick-start the project.
What was the research involved in the creation of this film?
The main focus of my research was to create relationships with the subjects so that they felt comfortable communicating with me. I spent a lot of time with them, understanding their situation and the context within which they function. I wanted to tell the story from their subjective point of view of what the first few steps towards the idea of emancipation look like. I mean, how does the world appear when you take charge of your own life.
How was the overall experience of making the documentary?
My experience while making the film has been so rich, it is truly difficult to sum it up. The young women I met defy categorization; they are wise, strong and vulnerable. The process of telling their stories has taught me that freedom is not an absolute word, its meaning alters with context. It has taught me to be a good listener and get rid of my preconceived notions.
What was the most challenging part of making Burqa Boxers?
To walk into someone’s life and say, I want to tell your story is a difficult thing to do. Building relationships so these conversations could happen with trust has been a big challenge.
What was Razia Shabnam’s reaction to the documentary?
Razia Shabnam is one of the first Indian women to become a coach and an international referee. She is one of the four characters in the story, and the thread that holds the other characters and their stories in place. When I first met her, she was ambivalent about the documentary. She was guarded because she had already received a lot of press and felt it disrupted the fragile relations within the community. As time passed and our relationship grew, she became more open to the idea and guided me towards events that might be of interest to the story. Her friendship has been one of the fortunate outcomes of pursuing this story.
While Indian audiences are opening up to the short film and indie format, where do you see documentaries as a medium in the country?
Documentaries are amazing stories, entertaining, informative, emotional, and dramatic, I don’t think a different or more evolved aptitude is needed to appreciate them. It’s more of a matter of availability of enough finance to create the stories, and enough distribution channels so they may reach a wider audience.
What is that one thing that fascinates you about documentary filmmaking?
Following your own curiosity about the subject and learning a completely different point of view in the process is what I value deeply. I love the fact that in the beginning I am never sure of the approach I must take towards creating the story. The structure, the style evolves as the story progresses. It’s like an adventure, the process is humbling and empowering at the same time. It makes you respect the challenges.