Sweta Shahi, a mainstay on the India Women’s Rugby 7s team, cracks up when some of her teammates point out in jest that her face bears an uncanny resemblance to a character in Chak De, India! (2007). “Doesn’t she look like Bindia Naik, ma’am?” one of them asks me about Shahi’s likeness to the feisty centre-half, also the rebel of the troupe, in the celebrated Hindi-language sports drama on the Indian women’s hockey team’s triumph against the odds.
“It’s hard to disagree,” I tell Shahi, only half joking, as she prepares to front the team’s first TV interview of the day ahead of their departure for the 19th Asian Games in China. “I can’t tell if I look like that actor, lekin panga toh kaafi liyein hain humne rugby ke liye (but I have taken on many challenges to play rugby),” quips the 25-year-old.
It’s a sodden September afternoon in Kolkata. Shahi and the rest of the India Women’s Rugby 7s squad have been in the city for a preparatory camp for nearly seven weeks. Over shared meals at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Salt Lake dormitory and hours spent watching them tap, tackle, pass, kick and scrum at the neighbouring training ground, I have witnessed this incongruously varied group bear out the incredulity of life imitating art: an improbable assemblage of Indian women breaking barriers to forge professional careers in a sport that is as brutal as it is beautiful.
Shahi is a gutsy embodiment of the transformational power of rugby (and the internet). Hailing from the socioeconomically backward hinterland of Bihar’s Bhadari village, she is a self-taught practitioner who learnt the nuances of the sport by watching YouTube tutorials. Since taking up rugby at school she has gone places, quite literally.