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Netflix’s HOMEGAME features “pehlwani” with a Dangal twist

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

“The wrestlers are only born from the soil”

Netflix’s HOMEGAME is a fascinating sports-centric documentary web television series that focuses on some of the globe’s weirdest, extreme, traditional national sports. It will take you to a place and into the cultures where these unusual games were born and have flourished throughout these years. The first season is a collection of intriguing, obscure topics that raise our curiosity and gives us goosebumps.

There’s an episode on freediving without oxygen, Kok Boru which is a rough polo-like game played with a dead goat as a ball in Kyrgyzstan, water buffalo race in Bali and Indian origin Pehlwani which is an oldest and traditional form of wrestling played in Banaras; the oldest city in the world situated on the banks of the most sacred of Indian rivers. The episode focuses on how women are compelling in the arena once reserved for men.

Interesting right? So many unknown stories of traditional sports and culture! Indeed, a title worthy of the concept, ‘Home Game’ emerged as one of Netflix’s interestingly conceptualized sports docu-series which is giving voice to local people from around the globe.

It is directed by Austin Reza, Ryan Duffy, Andrew Fried, and Zia Mandviwalla. The Pehelwani episode was produced in collaboration with Supriya Sobti Gupta at MOW Productions, India.

Behind the scene from the docu-series HOMEGAME
Behind the scene from the docu-series HOMEGAME
This episode focuses on how women were always perceived to be in their boundaries and how patriarchy has made people believe that women are comforters and nurtures in domestic places. And if you cross that boundary your gender limitations will be questioned.

The documentary revolves around Apeksha Singh who is 20 years old, hails from a farmer’s family who lives in Jogiapur. After the death of her father, her family has been economically unstable, and to become independent, she chose wrestling as her career. She has akharas in her nearby village but women were forbidden to wrestle and now she has to move to Varanashi. Kashish Yadav is 17 years now, comes from a traditional wrestling family, where her father Kallu Pehlwan was a national wrestling champion and her grandfather is also known for wrestling, which proves to be an advantage for her. Both of them are promising wrestlers and opponents in the game. As wrestling had been a men-only sport for decades, with the participation, they want to become professional wrestlers, prove that girls are capable of doing anything, and make their families proud. As the training for a wrestler remains incomplete till they touch the mud of an Akhara and these girls are doing exactly the same by getting into the core of it means from getting down in the dirt of the mud pits to learning how to pin your opponent, to master the back-breaking techniques on the mat. How year old tradition of Tulsi Ghat Akhara which was prohibited for women for 478 years from entering now, has given access to it and the culture of organising Varanashi’s biggest wrestling festival of Nag Panchami every year is very interesting and you should definitely visit to be a part of it.

A sequence shows how Kashish and her family helps Apeksha by giving her dry fruits and milk which will help her to train hard and fulfill her needs for a good diet. It seemed unusual in a good way because it's very rare for your rival mate to help you in such a way. By including this, the girls set a good example of empathy and sportsmanship which often lacks in the male-dominated sports environment.

Astha and Nandini PC: Supriya Sobti
Astha and Nandini PC: Supriya Sobti

Tulsi Ghat is named after the great Hindu poet of the 16th century, Tulsidas, who composed the great Indian epic, Ramcharitmanas, at Varanasi. He had started the dangal at this bank, according to legend. The akhara is credited with producing several award-winning wrestlers.

Practiced at least since the 5th Millennium BC, Pehlwani was developed in the Mughal Empire by combining Persian Koshti Pahlavani with influencers from native Indians. And during the late 17th, this country was encouraged to pay homage to the great god Hanuman. It was said that Maratha encouraged the sports and every boy at the time could wrestle and even women took up the sport.

Since then, Banaras was said to be the greatest wrestling center. But as people and the city grew, women were removed or you also say they decided to give for one reason or the other and it started reflecting a different story where a man was dominating the akharas. A few years ago, we did not get a female wrestler even after much effort. Sometimes to bring women participants in the competition, judo girls had to be organized for wrestling, says Prem Mishra who is General Secretary of Wrestling Association, Banaras in an interview with the newspaper.

Gaya Seth akhara. PC: Supriya Sobti
Gaya Seth akhara. PC: Supriya Sobti

In the episode, you will see that despite how these girls are putting their effort to bring a generational change, people still have social stigmas for women and they think that girls and women should not be taking part in these spots and cross their limits.

But in contrast with the fact, the episode has the ability to impact culture and gender. Because when a girl grows up in a society watching other people decide her opportunities, it’s all in the name of culture and gender and this docu episode will question your perception towards girls and her choice between traditional life and an attempt to change that through the backdrop of wrestling.

The film shows you how the Rio Olympics medal won by Sakshi Malik in 2016 and the Bollywood drama film Dangal which is based on Indian women wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat have changed lives of hundreds of girls and encouraged them to pick up something which was male-dominated for more than hundred of years. These girls are breaking the long-existing taboo of our society. I was very happy to even know the fact that not just Haryana but Varanasi is producing a lot of women wrestlers who have their dream to bring medals for the country.

PC: Supriya Sobti
PC: Supriya Sobti

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.”

Supriya Sobti told Inspire Crew that, for the Pehlwani episode of Home Game though, the talent profiling part was rather interesting. I spent a good few days with the girls and their families, getting down and dirty with them in mud-pits, swilling milk straight from their family cows, visiting temples as they would every morning, feasting on local street food, running laps at the Banaras Hindu University ground, riding pillion for an evening training session at the stadium, all this and more to get a glimpse into the lives of these young women as athletes and individuals at home. They’re down for breaking all sorts of barriers, even at the cost of their bones and that’s very brave.

Behind the scene. PC: Supriya Sobti
Behind the scene. PC: Supriya Sobti

And the interesting part of writing about Pehalwani is that since I have also made a film on women in non-traditional sports in India, knowing about this episode appealed my curiosity.

Overall, there is not even a single reason for which I will suggest not to watch this episode or maybe the entire docu-series. Every part of it is so inspiring and it takes you to another world. It's just a 22-minute episode, very creatively designed. I loved the musical scores and the way it ends with a dialogue “the wrestlers are only born from the soil” stands true because not just wrestlers but everyone who exists on earth is born from the soil and will go back in the soil.

So what are you waiting for? HOME GAME series is already streaming on NETFLIX.

About the writer: Kopal Goyal has written this story and she is the founder of Inspire Crew which is a platform to empower people through extreme and outdoor sports in India by keeping women at the forefront.

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