Documenting a Story of Change


The end credits to the Slumdog Children of Mumbai, a 2010 documentary made by Nick Read roll on my screen at 3:00 am. Yes, I am guilty of watching documentaries at odd hours and losing track of time. As I’m looking for more heartfelt documentaries to watch, I chance upon the trailer of the documentary, titled Right Forward, that’s based on 12 young girls voyaging on a journey to San Francisco from Dharavi (Mumbai’s largest slum) to show their prowess in a soccer camp. And what gives me a happy jolt is a name at the end that I am familiar with – Surya Balakrishnan, director.

The next morning, Surya was kind enough to chat with me. Speaking of how she first got on-board the documentary project that features team of 12 Mumbai girls, she says, “Ruchi Narain, filmmaker, and producer of Right Forward – got me on board in 2011 when the first girls’ football team of Magic Bus got invited to a sports camp in San Francisco by the Julie Foudy Foundation.”

Magic Bus, a not-for-profit that works with underprivileged children, was selected for Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy’s (JFSLA) annual summer camp in San Francisco. The organization works with communities, where a free snack is enough incentive for children in the locality to do something. So, when they started offering healthy nibbles to kids who showed up for football training every Sunday, the girls turned up for every session! It wasn’t long before they developed a taste for the game and not just the snack.

Surya, who documented this incredible journey is admired for her ability to tell profoundly deep stories with people who have never been in front of a camera. She smiles and adds, “The most beautiful part about making a documentary is to indulge, fall in love with your characters and let their lives and your film about it change and inspire your own.”

“Ashima Narain, the cinematographer, and I shot for a day with the girls, when they were getting the passports. Initially, we didn’t think a lot of the girls would make it – they didn’t have passports because they didn’t have permanent homes. But we tied it. The soccer team was not just on paper but now stamped and ready for take-off” says Surya when asked about the early days of the project. She adds, “It was a treat to see the girls so closely, as they made this incredible journey. It took the girls a while to get used to the new space and people but once they did… It was a wonderful rollercoaster for them.” she continues, “It was exciting even for us in the US. We expected the girls to react in a certain way because we are going abroad for the first time but they reacted to the strangest of things like people (actually!) waiting at the traffic lights. We thought it would be the skyscrapers that would steal the show.”

All the excitement for days, they had now gotten there. The director points out, “Of course it was challenging. The American girls were way better players – way stronger too and far better than our girls – at least in the beginning. Also, they had been playing for a long time. It took our girls a while to adjust to the new setting.” As she shares the behind the scenes, I briefly get a front seat to the documentary as we time travel back to 2011, she narrates, “There is a rather powerful scene where coach, Kimberly Miranda who they called Kim Di is taking their case and asking them what went wrong in the game they played that day. The way she dealt with the girls was both firm and nurturing. Coaching is so tough because they are all feisty and yet so different – the skill is how is it to bring them together and make them play as a team”. She’s quick to reveal, “I am not big on playing any sports but I find it immensely rewarding. It shapes how you look at things.”

We initially thought it was going to be us following our girls but eventually, it also became so much about the American girls learning from our girls. They were paired with each other which led to them learning things. And since this was a camp, the girls were involved in various activities, apart from soccer. I remember, there was one day when all the girls we asked to build homes for underprivileged Americans. And they were rather large – compared to the slums our girls came from and have always associated poverty with. Our girls took a while to process that there were poor people in America as well and how much their government was doing for them. While the American girls needed to be introduced to the concept of slums. So, it was two-sided cultural learning than just the girls adjusting to each other”

As I hear more about the girls trying to take in all the things “American”, the filmmaker reveals the team’s not-so-secret secret, with a smirk, “Oh they’d carry this BIG bottle of hot sauce in their bags. ALL of them. The food was just too bland for them.” She bursts into laughter giving away a scene where one of the days, when Indian food was on the menu, the girls went overjoyed and went around feeding their American friends.

Speaking of back home in Mumbai, Surya sheds light on how it wasn’t easy to convince parents to send their daughters to play football, which they considered a boys’ game. I learn, that it was most fathers who were the ones that switched after the girls returned home. She tells me, “Full filmy when the team touched down in Mumbai – with one of the girls’ fathers welcoming the team with roses at the airport! Most mothers were supportive. They were happy their girls were stepping out and they were being recognised by, “Dekho, Savita ki mummy ja rahe hai” (Look it’s Savita’s mother). The ones who weren’t as keen were talked into by mothers who understood the importance of this exposure”

Filming with the girls wasn’t as easy, she shared, “It was a little tough for them, I mean I understand – because we were always there, probing them. Of course, they were nice around us but were not always happy to see us because we/our camera was right in their face – shooting their every move, even mundane ones.” With a warm smile and glint of pride, she mentions Gulafshah, one of the girls (who’s 25 years old now) from the team who went on to start her organization – Dreaming in a Slum. Sheetal, Prajakta, and Aarti – three others from the team joined her and teach kids football and give them direction – ensuring they pay it forward.

“This was my first documentary. But I lucked out because it was already an inspiring story. And in a setting like this, you get to understand people because you end up spending so much time observing them. There was so much to learn from these girls! They have a crazy amount of energy and positivity. I think these things are often a lesson for a lifetime. The documentary, for me, has been an amazing journey and is and will always remain very close to my heart.”

I couldn’t have let a filmmaker go without asking her what she would watch on a day off, and she tells me, “Oh I love watching a simple slice of life kinda film, maybe a Rishikesh Mukerjee film. Also, I am a big fan of Asghar Farhadi and Iranaian cinema. The way they treat cinema seems like they are just simply documenting their lives and not filming something. That’s some skill they hold”

Mithila Naik-Satam is a development worker from Maharashtra. Share your feedback on [email protected]

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