A poor farmer’s daughter from India’s north-east, Mary Kom was unheard of until she won a boxing medal at the London Olympics. Now she is the focus of a film that will take her story to the world.
Bollywood film on Olympic boxing medallist Mary Kom
The story of Mary Kom is extraordinary on many levels: an Indian woman who became a boxer; a boxer who became a five-time world champion but whose name Indians would hear and ask “Mary who?”; and a woman whose husband, on recognising her talent, gave up his job and his own ambitions to help her fulfil her potential.
And if that isn’t enough to warrant a Bollywood movie – an Indian Million Dollar Baby, albeit with a happy ending – Kom and her husband, Onkholor, are still madly in love.
Kom became the first female boxer from India to win an Olympic medal at this year’s London Olympics. Bollywood is not known for featuring the lives of sports personalities but the first-time director Omung Kumar Bhandula could not resist a story with so much drama, quiet romance and an inspirational message to young Indians that anything is possible provided they have the kind of passion and perseverance that Kom does.
“I was shocked that I hadn’t heard of her – a five-time champion! I wanted to take her story to Indians and the world because it is all about hope. She thought it was a joke when I said I wanted to make a film about her because she had been winning title after title and no one had ever come to even interview her,” says Bhandula.
This all changed after she won a bronze medal this summer. Kom, 29, became an overnight star. She came home to a thumping welcome and ever since she landed at the airport, her life has been a whirlwind of interviews, photo shoots and awards ceremonies.
Before the Olympics, her achievements used to be tucked away in small mentions in the sports pages. Now Kom can’t go shopping without being mobbed. And no less a Bollywood director than Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Devdas, Black) is producing the film.
Kom is a poor farmer’s daughter from Manipur in India’s remote north-east, a region most Indians know nothing about. When people from the north-eastern states emigrate to other parts of the country for work, they often face -discrimination. “I hope the film will bridge the gap between the north-east and the rest of India, and will bring them closer together,” says Kom. “I also hope it shows the gender bias that women sometimes suffer in boxing.”
Kom’s home in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, is spartan and small. There are no servants, not even a maid. When Kom is at home and not practising, she does the dishes, cooks, cleans and looks after her 5-year-old twin sons.
She returned from a two-year sabbatical to take a shot at the Olympics. It was a daunting prospect. Not many Indians realise that Kom had won five world championship titles in the 46kg category. In London, she was fighting in the 51kg category because there are no 46 or 48kg categories at the Olympics. It was a big jump for her but she triumphed.
Bhandula began working on the film 18 months ago, long before the Olympics and Kom’s new-found fame. His screenwriter, Saiwyn Quadras, says he was moved by Kom’s quest for success but equally touched by the dynamic between her and Onkholor: “This man decided to look after the children and the house for the long periods when she was training. He saw her talent and, because he loved her, decided it was his moral duty to encourage her.”
Onkholor is a Delhi University graduate, a local community leader and a footballer. He gave up his government job in the customs department in Imphal to be both mother and father to their sons while Kom trained like a demon. In return, Kom makes it a point to cook and clean for him when she is home as a gesture of appreciation for all the work he does for much of the year.
“I want the film to send out the message to India’s male-dominated society that if a woman has potential and the man stands by her, there is no shame in it,” says Quadras.
As for when the film will hit screens, the screenplay is ready. An actress hasn’t been chosen yet but whoever it is, Kom has agreed to coach her in boxing for four months. She is aware that films can distort real lives but hopes that Bhandula’s film will stay true to her story.
She is thrilled to be the subject of a film. “I feel honoured and I’m very excited,” she says. “I do hope they will highlight my husband’s role in my success. Without him, there would be no story to tell.”