Why do most Indians underestimate Bollywood?

Women sports
Idol with shuttlecock

The Indian badminton player Saina Nehwal has become a national role model. Soon there will be a Bollywood film about her. Your country urgently needs strong women.

From Saskya Jain

March 29, 2015, in the Siri Fort Stadium in the Indian capital New Delhi. The final of the Badminton India Open is about to begin. The Thai Ratchanok Intanon takes on Saina Nehwal, India's "Golden Girl". The fans have been waiting for this match for hours. Saina, as everyone calls her, is one of the most successful female athletes the country has ever produced. And what is already certain: her victory against the Japanese Yui Hashimoto the day before gave her the world number one for badminton women. The fact that this historic moment took place on Indian soil earned her many new followers overnight. Especially after the Indian cricket team's elimination in the semi-finals of the World Cup, everyone is now ready to celebrate them as the new muse of Indian sport.

There she is. Everyone jump from their seats, applaud and shout: Sai-na! Sai-na! Sai-na! Her shoulder-length black hair is tied in a ponytail as always. At least ten colorful hair clips - her trademark - adorn her head. Seriously, almost confused, she looks at her feet. She looks like a schoolgirl who has just been appointed principal. Almost as if she didn't even hear the cheers, as if she didn't know about her new ranking. As if she simply didn't trust the success.

The fact that women athletes are underestimated at best and exposed to systemic discrimination in the worst case is not a specific Indian story. Discrimination and patriarchy are catchwords here that will remain valid for a long time to come. But the assertion that Indian women themselves are oppressed, as one often hears in Europe, portrays the situation in a much simpler way than it actually is. The biographies of activists like Kiran Bedi and various Bollywood actresses already show that. And Saina's career as "the people's player" also tells an instructive story.

Sporting success in India, especially among women, happens not thanks to the state system, but in spite of it. Too little financial support, hardly any resources, bad management, corruption and a lack of transparency are just some of the hurdles that an aspiring sportswoman in India has to overcome. Many give up before they make it into the top league. The biggest problem remains public opinion. Sport as a career is still not very well recognized. And as you can imagine, young girls with sporting ambitions have particularly bad cards.

If you look at the biographies of the most successful Indian sportswomen, you can quickly see that it is almost always the parents who recognized the child's talent and promoted it with their own resources. Success is practically impossible without individual, private support.

Sons bring money into the family, daughters cost

It was the same in Saina's case. She was born in 1990 in the state of Haryana, which borders the capital and, as far as women are concerned, is known for the following: In 2016, the country had the most group rapes in the country, of around 1,000 reported rapes, 200 were the acts of several men. Haryana is considered to be particularly patriarchal and has downright feudal traits. When a boy is born, the family distributes candy in the neighborhood. If it is a girl, they say: Our condolences, maybe you will have better luck next time. Sons bring money into the family, daughters cost. In most rural areas, a dowry is still negotiated when a daughter is married, even though it is illegal - for decades girls have been aborted as a result. To prevent this, it was made a criminal offense in India in 1994 to find out the sex of the child during pregnancy. And yet there is hardly any other state in which the ratio of women to men is so unbalanced.

At the same time, an enormous number of female athletes who have won medals in an international context come from Haryana. At first glance this seems paradoxical, at second it makes sense. Because the sports in which they excel often emphasize combative - one might almost say martial - aspects: wrestling, hockey, shooting, discus throwing. Haryanvis, most of whom are farmers, are considered particularly tough and physically tough in India. Perhaps this culture contributes to the sporting achievements that women and men from the agrarian state are known for. But of course a sport like badminton also offers the chance to leave the rigid social conditions behind.

Saina's parents also played badminton professionally, and her mother Usha even represented Haryana at tournaments. It is she who dreamed of an international badminton career to Saina. At every tournament, Usha Nehwal sits at the front in the VIP area.

At the age of eight, Saina moved with the family to Hyderabad in southern India, where her father had been transferred. Since she did not speak Telugu, she looked for a sport in which she had little communication and from then on also played badminton. Her talent was quickly recognized. Her father invested his retirement package and took out loans to give his younger daughter a decent exercise. In 2006 it officially started to work out - Saina succeeded in the national U-19 tournament at the age of 16, and in the same year she became the first Indian woman and youngest Asian woman to ever win a four-star tournament, the Philippines Open. Since then she has cleared more than 24 international titles. With equity of around 2.5 million euros, she is one of the richest badminton players in the world. She advertises petroleum jelly and instant noodles on Indian television. She is currently filming a Bollywood biopic about her.

Role model for young athletes

Their success refutes the assumption, especially widespread in the West, that Indian women are generally unsuitable for national idols. On the other hand, the currently richest Indian cricketer, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, is worth almost 100 million euros. An athlete who, mind you, only plays as a member of a team. Which shows how different the status of men's and women's sport still is - worldwide. In India, however, there is also the colonial history of both sports. While the popular cricket originated in England and was exported to India, the English invented modern badminton in India themselves. The oldest tournament is the All England Open, where non-European players were admitted for the first time in 1947. Nowadays, badminton plays an important role, especially in Asia. The top players come from China, Indonesia, Japan, India. The last time an English woman won the singles title at the prestigious All England Open was in 1978.

In that March 2015, Saina won the final of the India Open. She is hailed by the media as a role model for young female athletes across the country. Only Olympic gold has been denied her so far. In Rio, where her younger colleague P.V. Sindhu won silver, Saina was eliminated in the first lap - ten days earlier she had suffered a knee injury during training. Your career is over, the media rumored. It is approaching 30, but is only able to hold onto ninth place in the world rankings. A defeat at the next Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 cannot be ruled out.

And then? India urgently needs ambitious, strong women, idols. The average age in the country will be 29 in 2020. Saina wants to found a badminton training institute for young girls in Haryana and thus serve the future of India. So far she has not been drawn into politics. But why not? Cricket star Imran Khan allegedly consoled himself after losing in the 1987 Cricket World Cup semifinals by playing You Can’t Always Get What You Want Heard about the Rolling Stones. Today he is Pakistan's Prime Minister.


Saskya Jain is a writer and translator. She lives in New Delhi and Berlin. Her debut novel "Fire Under Ash" was published in 2014 by Random House. She is a guest author of "10 nach 8".

Copyright: First published in column 10nach8 by ZEIT ONLINE on February 12, 2019

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