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Nearly seven years ago, Ameesha Joshi came across a portrait of an Indian woman boxer at a photo exhibition in Montreal. Instead of just marvelling at the light composition and moving on, Joshi called her friend and classmate at the Concordia University, Anna Sarkissian and the two set off for India - to make a documentary on the Indian women's boxing team.
The next six years took them to India, China, Barbados, and Ontario. Five birthdays and 160 hours of footage later, Joshi and Sarkissian are in the midst of chopping that down to an hour for their documentary, With This Ring. "Why?" is a question they've answered several times since that decision.
"The topic fascinated us for many reasons, " says the 29-year-old Joshi, daughter of Gujarati parents. "India has some of the top women boxers in the world. They have risen to the top from very humble circumstances. Although I grew up in Canada, my parents emigrated from India and I'm aware of the cultural expectations from the daughters and could imagine some of the criticism these woman would've faced. We knew we had found some extraordinary trailblazers and their inspirational stories needed
to be shared, " she explains.
Their arrival in New Delhi invited puzzled looks. Sarkissian says, "For a long time, they didn't really understand why we were interested in filming them. "
And that thought wasn't misplaced. In 2006, Mary Kom had just won her third world championship and the Indian team had won eight medals in 13 categories but the feat was barely covered in the Indian media. When Joshi and Sarkissian walked around Delhi with photos of Mary and some other boxers, they couldn't find a single person who "even knew that India had a women's boxing team. "
With the inclusion of women's boxing in London Olympics, 2012, the spotlight is squarely on Mary Kom, who will fight in the 51 kg category. She, along with Sarita Devi (60 kg) and Pooja Rani (75 kg), is expected to qualify and win medals in London. But according to the filmmakers, the rest of the team trains in relative anonymity. "The fictional characters in Chak De India are more recognised and celebrated than the Indian women's national boxing team, " Sarkissian, who's a self-confessed Indophile, remarks.
If getting official permissions was a little taxing, getting the girls to open up wasn't easy. The boxers train nearly all year round - six days a week, three times a day, 10 months of the year. "Due to the boxers' rigorous schedules, we had very little one-onone time with them. Lack of Hindi also created a barrier, making even simple communication quite difficult, " Joshi admits.
Soon the girls welcomed them into their homes and lives, much to their delight but it also made keeping a distance that much harder. "As documentary filmmakers, it's a good idea to have a bit of distance from the people and situation you are filming, " Sarkissian says.
Hundreds of hours of footage is not unusual for most documentary filmmakers but devoting six years to a single project is a bit of a stretch, Joshi and Sarkissian agree. "Anna and I would prefer to shoot much less in future. Our friends and families have been supportive, although they never stop asking us: 'Is it finished yet?'" Joshi says.
The shoot was further stretched because funds were never assured - the girls often had to wait for money to travel and shoot. "In the meantime, we had day jobs to pay the bills and we both finished our master's degrees. We never wanted to film the team for so long, but there were just so many interesting developments in their lives that we kept going. Then, when the Olympics were announced, our focus shifted and we knew we had to follow through and release the film in the lead up to the games.
The Olympics are their chance to finally be taken seriously and make history, " Sarkissian says.
In the final stages of editing, both are keeping their guard up - the two are conversant in boxing parlance now - and working on releasing the film before London 2012 but where the film will be shown is yet to be finalised. Anna says: "We definitely want to show the film throughout India, but the details have not been finalised yet. We are still looking for an Indian broadcaster. "
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