Shaana Levy-Bahl and Uraaz Bahl were destined to make a movie together. Levy-Bahl jokingly attributes her love of film and storytelling to her cinematic entrance into the world (her mother endured a 36 hour labor by watching Bollywood films). “We were a family that consumed movies and shows and loved role playing stories so I knew I always wanted to be an actor, before I even understood what it meant,” Levy-Bahl told me over the phone from her home in Mumbai. That conviction led her to Columbia University in New York and internships with film luminaries Mira Nair and Steve Tisch. The “master plan,” as she called it, was to finish school, move to L.A. and start acting. But an illness during her junior year of college sidelined those dreams and Levy-Bahl returned to London to recuperate and be with her family.
While in London, she began doing Off-West End plays and got an agent, who one day suggested that she audition for a Bollywood movie. “I said no, absolutely not. I don’t speak the language and I’m a theatre actor, I don’t want to go to Bollywood!” My agent was like ‘the audition is in English and you’re young and need to practice your audition techniques, so just go, you have nothing to lose.’ She reluctantly went to the audition and three months later was cast in a major Bollywood production with none other than Katrina Kaif and Akshay Kumar. “I’ll never forget getting the call from my agent as I was walking down Sloane Street and I burst out crying!” Feeling like she had finally gotten her big break, Levy-Bahl, who by then had relocated to Mumbai, was shocked to learn that her scenes had been cut from the movie. Disappointed and disillusioned by her experience, Levy-Bahl decided that rather than be at someone’s behest as an actor, she wanted to call the shots and be in control of her own destiny.
An opportunity to produce the British Indian comedy West Is West allowed her to see firsthand that filmmaking was much more than what an actor does on screen and confirmed that this was the path she needed to follow. “Something clicked and I realized I wanted to be part of the entire filmmaking process and have control of the things I didn’t have control over as an actor.” She also made the decision to return to London to pursue producing and acting opportunities there but life once again made other plans. “I was getting ready to go back to London when I met my husband and that changed things” she said with a laugh.
“India’s great at telling stories for an Indian audience but we haven’t cracked telling stories for a Western sensibility. It’s sad that it’s directors from England, like Danny Boyle, who’ve come to India and done an incredible film like Slumdog. That then became the cornerstone of the kind of stories we wanted to tell and the company we wanted to form.”
Uraaz Bahl had filmmaking ambitions of his own which, coincidentally, were also derailed by an illness. Bahl had been accepted into UCLA film school when he learned that his mother had terminal cancer. He made the difficult decision to forgo school to be with his father and take over the family business. It wasn’t until he met Levy-Bahl that his love of filmmaking was reignited. “He had suppressed his wishes and desires until he met me, the crazy drama queen, and felt free to say, ‘I really love film and I’ve always wanted to direct.’ Finally feeling supported in their shared passion, the couple spent a summer taking production courses at USC Film School and realized that the stories they wanted to tell were Indian stories from a global perspective. As Levy-Bahl explained, “India’s great at telling stories for an Indian audience but we haven’t cracked telling stories for a Western sensibility. It’s sad that it’s directors from England, like Danny Boyle, who’ve come to India and done an incredible film like Slumdog. That then became the cornerstone of the kind of stories we wanted to tell and the company we wanted to form.”
It was shortly after they returned from LA that Bahl read an article in the paper about a young Olympic hopeful named Deepika Kumari who was India’s best shot at a gold medal in Rio. “He was like, this girl’s story is so incredible and he resonated with her struggle and having all these obstacles in her way. He turned to me and said, ‘let’s do this.’ I said yes, let’s do it! I loved the idea of telling a strong female story.”
“The Olympics are really a barometer for gender equality. Talent is evenly distributed amongst genders, but opportunities, especially in India, are not.”
That story, of a young woman from an improvised village in Jharkhand, who went in search of food, stumbled upon an archery school and became number one in the world in just four years, is more than a rags to riches tale. “The Olympics are really a barometer for gender equality. Talent is evenly distributed amongst genders, but opportunities, especially in India, are not.”
We learned that it is very rare to find a woman from a nation where women are not valued to win an Olympic gold medal. Why? Because when you are at the Olympics, you are evenly matched in talent. It’s about how you mentally deal with the pressure. And girls and women from countries that marginalize women have an innate lack of self belief and confidence. Without that steeliness, it’s very hard to win. So how do we give our girls an opportunity to shine and find out what they’re good at? It was those themes that Uraaz and I got incredibly attached to and realized that we had to tell this story.”
Bahl joined his wife toward the latter part of our conversation and shared a surprising tidbit. Ladies First was not the original title of the movie. “We always thought it would be called “Deepika” because her name means ‘the light that shows the way’ so we loved that.” But Kumari, in her astute wisdom illuminated something more profound. “Uraaz was in the bleachers interviewing her and I was listening in with my notepad and he asked her a question about women’s empowerment and she just started talking about this phrase “ladies first,” how it’s used for unimportant things like sitting down and walking through a door and not where it really counts, like with education and sports and I got chills up and down my spine and wrote in my notebook in capital letters LADIES FIRST and underlined it twenty times! And in a second, it changed from Deepika to Ladies First.”
It isn’t surprising then to learn that Kumari has had a profound impact on the filmmakers lives. “It has been the most incredible experience for the both of us. We have grown both individually and as a couple. And we’ve grown just thanks to knowing Deepika. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s so true. I’d never met someone like her before – her spirit and her fight humbles you. What she’s done with her talent, what she’s done with the opportunities life has given her, how she’s conquered every single hurdle, how’s she’s fallen and come back up and risen again. We feel incredibly privileged to tell her story.”
Ladies First is now streaming on Netflix as India’s First Netflix Original Documentary!
Venk Modur sat at his table inside the ballroom of The Beverly Hilton…