In Burqa Boxers, one of the protagonists rents a police uniform costume. She has realised that her dream of becoming a policewoman will remain just that, but she wants to live it out nevertheless. She gets photographs clicked in a studio while wearing the uniform. The scene delivers a punch to the gut as it establishes that the women in the documentary, like elsewhere, straddle multiple worlds that often collide with each other.
Alka Raghuram’s 2016 film, which is now out on Cinemapreneur, a pay-per-view OTT platform, follows the lives of three female Muslim boxers in Kidderpore, Kolkata. “It shows how a group of feisty women and girls from a deeply traditional community try to change things in a way that’s appropriate for them,” says Raghuram over the phone from California, where she is based. “I had gone there expecting a story of a star athlete and instead found a more nuanced story of how stepping outside your comfort zone transforms you. Which, in their case, is boxing.”
The boxers are Ajmira Khatoon, Taslima Khatoon and Parveen Shajda. The common thread that binds them is their fierce coach Razia Shabnam, India’s first woman international boxing referee. Ajmira is, what one might call, a raging bull, determined to beat all odds. Taslima, who, at the time of filming, lived at a home run by the NGO New Light, which provides care for at-risk children and youth, is a feminist and often discusses discrimination against women with her friends. In class, Shabnam instructs students to keep their eyes open when someone tries to land a punch on their face. “There is wisdom in those details,” says Raghuram. “It’s about looking your fear in the eye.”
Shajda, who has now quit boxing due to financial hardship, once saw it as a means to achieve her dream of getting into the police force. “In the abstract, it made no sense as to why the women would pick boxing. But boxing is one of the cheapest sports to pursue and they wanted to get into the government quota for athletes for jobs. It was a pragmatic step. To me, all this boxing towards financial independence, to assert their space in the society, was eye-opening,” says Raghuram. “But it didn’t play out for most of them because the system was not set up for them to succeed. In West Bengal, at least, they didn’t have enough resources and facilities to become competitive enough to qualify for public sector jobs.”
Raghuram spent four years shooting with the women. The filmmaker, who is currently working on a psychological thriller titled ‘Ayna’, about a boxer, declines to share details of the women’s current whereabouts out of respect for their privacy, but says she is in touch with a few of them. “For Ajmira and Taslima, at this point, boxing is more of a passion that is not going to become something more because of lack of jobs.”
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