On October 23, the Departments of English, Anthropology and Religious Studies will be hosting a screening of Punches n Ponytails (2008), a documentary on women’s boxing in India. The screening will be from 7:00-9:00 in LB 125 and will be followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker, Pankaj Rishi Kumar. This event is free and open to all.

imgGraduating from India’s prestigious Film and Television Institute (FTII) in 1992, and specializing in film editing, Pankaj was assistant editor for Sekhar Kapur’s controversial fiction film Bandit Queen (1995) [Bandit Queen was based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a lower caste woman from North India who became the leader of a band of outlaws in the 70s and 80s]. After editing numerous documentaries and TV serials in India, he made his first film, Kumar Talkies (2000). Subsequently, Pankaj has become a one man crew producing, directing, shooting and editing his own films.

Some of his films include Pather Chujaeri (2001), 3 Men and a Bulb (2006), Punches n Ponytails (2008), and In God’s Land (2013). His films have been screened at festivals all over the world. He has won grants from Hubert Bals, IFA, the Jan Vrijman Fund (Netherlands), AND (Korea), Banff (Canada) and Majlis and Sarai (India). Pankaj was also awarded an Asia Society fellowship by the Harvard Asia Centre (2003). Besides making documentaries, Pankaj also curates and teaches.

Pankaj’s documentaries are marked by a strong social consciousness drawing on his training and personal investment in the traditions of cinéma vérité. He has made films on a wide variety of social and cultural issues—ranging from the impact of neoliberalism and policies of development on the lives of ordinary populations in India (In God’s Land, 3 Men and a Bulb) to the difficulties faced by the practitioners of a disappearing folk art form in the disputed territory of Kashmir (Pather Chujaeri). His films are marked by innovative narrative techniques such as the use of animation in In God’s Land.

Pather Chujaeri was selected to be a part of the Kashmiri Film Festival held in the Indian city of Hyderabad in September. This festival was in the news because it was disrupted by right-wing Hindu fundamentalist vandals who opposed the screenings on Kashmir. In an interview on Pather Chujaeri and the Kashmir Film Festival published in the widely circulated newspaper Times of India, Pankaj said: “I had read about the Kashmiri folk theatre called bhand pather. Post-independence (1947), this art form gradually began dying out. In the late 80s, it came under the purview of Islamist fundamentalists who felt that this folk theatre was anti-Islamic and (also) the Hindu fundamentalists (who) felt ‘how could somebody of a different religion talk about Hindu subjects?’ The post 90s generation doesn’t even know about the art form…There were only a few older people who were still trying to hold on to it with meager resources. That’s what my film is all about.”

Punches n Ponytails is another important milestone in Pankaj’s filmmaking journey. This 74 minute documentary is on women’s boxing in India. Women’s boxing hogged the headlines in India last year when Mary Kom won a bronze medal at the Olympics. India has a very poor history at the Olympics—Kom’s victory was, thus, a major cause for celebration in the country. Speaking from a personal angle, I was also gladdened by Kom’s Olympic success because it put the spotlight on the Indian northeast, the underrepresented and underreported region I hail from. Kom is from Manipur, which neighbors my home state of Assam. Punches n Ponytails, however, is not about Kom, but about the intersecting lives of Kirti and Jarna, both aspiring to be professional boxers. An extract from the blurb on Punches n Ponytails at the IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) website summarizes the major themes and concerns of the film:

“Two young Indian women would like nothing better than to become professional boxers…But in conservative India, this dream involves a fight against prejudice and disapproval, particularly from men. They prefer to see women at home instead of in the boxing ring…Despite its social theme, Punches n Ponytails is chiefly about the personal worries of Kirti and Jarna. Kirti fights not only her obesity, but also her illness and injuries and serious pressure from her family…Jarna, built like an athlete, struggles with her sexuality. She wants to behave like a boy and likes girls, but she always quarrels with her friend Puja. The boxing scenes in Punches n Ponytails are dazzling. The camera makes the same fast movements as the boxing girls, while the editing has an equally speedy tempo.” The documentary was an official selection at the Torino GLBT film festival, the IDFA (Amsterdam), DOKFEST (Munich), the Santiago Festival Internacional de Cine (Chile) and the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council (MIAAC) Film Festival (New York) among others. Pankaj’s film has also garnered a lot of praise.

For instance, the organizers of the Santiago Internacional de Cine (SANFIC) write: “At first glance, it might seem like just an exotic, quaint curiosity, but this documentary about female boxing in India is surprisingly candid and heartfelt. ……Instead of concerning himself with whether they won or lost the bouts, the director wanted to portray the love these young women have for the sport; their doubts and fears about the future, and their efforts to make their dreams come true…” We are very glad to screen the “candid and heartfelt” Punches n Ponytails at BSU. Hope to see many of you at the screening and discussion.