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Home Others Of mud, mat & madness - Varanasi's wrestling sisterhood finds voice in...

Of mud, mat & madness – Varanasi’s wrestling sisterhood finds voice in Netflix documentary

With the surge of sports documentaries of late, Netflix’s newly-launched ‘Home Game’ provides a unique perspective at sports from around the world that you might not have ever heard of.

‘Home Game’ is a well-choreographed documentary shading light on eight different sports from around the world and showing the competitors who are crazy enough to compete in their chosen homegrown sport. 

One of the episodes of the series is called Pehlwani, which takes us deep into the ancient martial art of mud wrestling (Pehlwani) in India, practised by a group of traditionalist strong men, dressed in loincloths, tussling in the dirt. Recently, the sport opened its doors to women, a move that has not been without controversy. 

The episode narrates the story of Apeksha and Kashish who are two teenage wrestlers facing a barrage of obstacles as they strive to achieve their dreams. From getting down in the dirt of the mud pits, to mastering the gruelling technique of the mat, these girls are tough and powerful. Strong, fierce and fearless they are part of the changing face of women in India as they strive to become professional female wrestlers. We also see the struggles faced by women as they tackle elderly people who still believe that age-old traditions should be kept.

The director of the episode Zia Mandviwalla in an interview with Campaign Brief Asia, said, “We shot our episode over the hottest, sweatiest couple of weeks in the incredible, holy city of Varanasi just before the monsoon broke in August last year. Apeksha and Kasis, our two young wrestlers were just the most phenomenal women who let us into their homes and lives. In a country where the pursuit of sport is not the done thing for women, we quickly understood their strength was not just physical – they tackled obstacles outside the mud pit in all sorts of arenas. They were an inspiration to all of us on the crew.”

India producer for the episode Supriya Sobti Gupta (MOW Productions) tells us “Pehelwani is not just a tale of two girls. It tells the story of underprivileged athletes who are driven by their passion and competitiveness but lack resources, and are deserving of the audience’s support.”

The episode is centred around the holy city of Varanasi where Pehlwani has been an age-old tradition carried out in Akharas – the mud pits where the pehlwans (wrestlers) fight. The narrative slowly turns to depict the history of pehlwani which started in the 5th Century AD. The sport essentially dominated by men is now experiencing a paradigm with women taking part. The tipping point of this shift came in 2016, when wrestler Sakshi Malik became the first Indian female wrestler to bag a medal (bronze) in the Olympics. 

Apeksha and Kashish are the two raring women wrestlers from the city who have been dreaming to make it big. Apeksha Singh, now 20, hails from a farmer’s family of a nearby village called Jogiapur. Their family have been facing a crisis since the death of her father. With the stubbornness to become independent, Apeksha chose wrestling to be her career. Despite having akharas in her nearby villages, she had to go to Varanasi, as she wasn’t allowed in the male-dominated grid otherwise. While Kashish is 17, who comes from a traditional wrestling family, where her father Kallu Pehlwan was an open national wrestling champion. 

Though Apeksha and Kashish are rivals on the mat, they are bind by a strong bond of sisterhood. A scene from the episode, where Kashish shares a tiffin box full of Almonds with Apeksha shows their bond and reflects how both of them cares for each other. Both the wrestlers are shown preparing for the D-Day, Varanasi’s biggest wrestling festival, the Nag Panchami. 

The episode highlights the girls’ journey of breaking the glass ceiling and entering the pehlwani microcosm by playing on mats beside the picturesque ghats of the holy Ganges to the hallowed ground for wrestling in Varanasi, the Tulsi Das Akhara. From being pitted against one another to taking down their male counterparts, Apeksha and Kashish are seen the flagbearers of among the new women wrestlers in the country who are making giant strides in the sport. 

The Pehelwani episode was produced in collaboration with MOW Productions, India. 

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