HT Brunch Cover Story: Before the biopic
Meet the captain of the Indian women’s national football team, Loitongbam Ashalata Devi, a player whose life is a gripping story just waiting to be shared
Fresh off the HT Brunch cover shoot, 29-year-old Loitongbam Ashalata Devi is in high spirits. “It was so very good,” she repeats thrice, effusively. “It was my first experience and I really liked it.” Ashalata is instantly easy to talk to and has an almost innocent, unpretentious way of speaking and natural charm that draws you to her.
But if you ran into her on the street, chances are you’d walk right past her without recognising her. The professional football player and captain of the women’s national football team may have kept a low profile, but she’s already achieved more than most men and women her age, after overcoming what is arguably the most influential pressure there is—familial—to get to where she is today. She may be young, but her life story already has all the ingredients you’d need to make a compelling biopic.
Who would she choose to play her on the big screen? “I think Sanya Malhotra would fit my character best,” Ashalata muses.
From the beginning
As with any good biopic, there should be a detailed flashback to one’s early childhood days. However, Ashalata says that she started playing football pretty late in life. She was already 13 when she first started playing, back in her hometown of Imphal, Manipur.
“I’d never really seen girls play football before,” she says. “When I was studying in class seven, I used to see some boys playing near my house. And looking at them, I really wanted to play, too.”
So, she did what anybody in class seven would do: went to her teacher. “I requested my school teacher to let me play,” Ashalata says. “He told me, ‘Football isn’t played with just one player. You need an entire team. If you want to play, make a team and come back.’”
The determined young girl was unfazed. “I went to my friends and other girls studying in class with me and told them, ‘Let’s play.’ They wanted to play too, so we quickly made two teams and started playing that day itself,” she remembers.
“The first minute that I played football, I felt that the fun was unmatched. I didn’t feel that kind of joy in anything else.” she says simply. “So, I just kept playing.”
After that, Ashalata took every opportunity she could to play the game, honing her skills and developing her passion for the game. There was just one catch. “My mother didn’t support me at all,” she reveals. “She’d never seen girls play football, let alone professional football. She would always tell me to not play and to focus on my studies.”
In fact, her mother, Loitongbam Jamuna Devi, even beat her occasionally, warning her not to go to practice. But Ashalata remained determined. “Sometimes I would go to practice straight after school instead of going home and I’d tell my mother I got late at school,” she confesses.
“There were so many problems, but my father always stood by me. He said to me, ‘If you feel like playing, then play. I can’t say anything to your mother, but you play,’” she laughs as she remembers. But she doesn’t harbour any grudges against her mother. “I knew what she expected of me,” she says. “That I should give up playing, get a job and help to take care of the family.”
In 2008, when she was 15, Loitongbam was called up for the under-17 national football team. That was the moment her mother realised that there was no stopping her oldest daughter and finally accepted that this was what she wanted to do.
At the same time, being the oldest sister of six siblings—she has four sisters and one brother—the pressure on her to step up and be more responsible was increasing day by day, especially because playing this sport professionally is too expensive for most.
To earn more money, Ashalata’s mother would make Rani Phee’s—Manipur’s traditional dress—and sell them for about ₹6,000-7,000. But it still wasn’t enough.
“Financially, there were a lot of problems at home,” Ashalata discloses. “The club I was playing with was one and a half hours away from my house. I had to ask my mother for money to go there every single day. My sisters and brother were still studying in private schools and we had a lot of money problems. I finally thought to myself, I have to do something.”
Unfortunately, she lost her father— Loitongbam Yaima Singh, a farmer—when she was only 19 years old. Ultimately, the footballer says, she felt like she was grown up enough and started feeling ashamed of asking her mother for money.
So, when she was 21, she left Imphal in search of a better future.
She made the decision to transfer, unpaid, to a club in Delhi. To make money, she worked as a football coach for children under 17 and under 14 in various schools, between 10 am and 2 pm. Eventually, Ashalata got a job with the Indian Railways in Bihar under the sports quota, which allowed her to focus on her football and draw a salary.
For someone who once wanted to read law, Ashalata sure has come a long way. She plays as a defender, and currently captains both the Indian national team and Gokulam Kerala, a team that is part of the Indian Women’s League. As a captain, she knows how important it is to be respected rather than feared, and to focus on the game instead of things she has no control over.
One of those things is the continuous gender discrimination as well as the fact that there aren’t as many opportunities for endorsements and hence, more money, in football as there are in cricket, or even hockey. While she acknowledges that things are changing, she isn’t afraid to talk about how there is scope for much more.
“There are a lot of changes being made right now in football. After the Indian Soccer League came about, a lot of the male players have been getting more opportunities. Women footballers are still getting fewer opportunities but even that’s increasing every year,” she appreciates. “Sometimes I feel that in India, cricket and hockey developed very fast, but football didn’t. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this; we have the association [the All India Football Federation] and that helps us of course, but along with that we need NGOs and sponsors—without those, how long will we keep pushing the association?”
It’s evident that this is something she is passionate about.
“For example,” she continues pragmatically, “the men’s league has way more sponsors than the women’s league. So, if the men’s team is making more money, they’ll award them more money. We keep fighting for equal pay—and we should fight—but we also need a reason to fight. If women’s football was making a lot of money and they didn’t pay us, we would fight. But we aren’t making money and sponsors aren’t coming, so how do we go to the association and ask for equal pay?”
Does she think the gender divide will ever be erased? Will men’s football and women’s football ever be on the same level?
“Obviously,” she replies with no hesitation. “I feel it should happen and it will happen. We have good rankings and we’re all trying very hard to be better. This year, we’re working towards qualifying for the Olympics [the AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament that will be held in April]. That’s very important for us. If we qualify, we can push the association, push the government and tell them that our team is here, at this level, and these are the things we need.”
Currently she is sponsored by sportswear manufacturer Adidas, for which she credits her manager Abhishek Sharma, CEO of Athletes Today, and his team. It was that deal which took her to the World Cup Finals match: “I didn’t even have the money to buy studs before this deal came along,” Ashalata admits. “I asked Abhishek to get me a deal with Adidas because I liked them so much. He tried so hard and got it done, and I’m so happy!” She also says that no other brand ever approached her, something she hopes will not happen to future players.
“There are so many good women football players who are working so hard,” she says earnestly. “I hope they get opportunities and sponsorship from big brands, too. It’ll motivate them and it’ll go a long way in showing younger players that women’s football is getting better and better.”
A class act
Most biopics are traditionally made when the subject is older. As someone who’s turning 30 this July, does Ashalata feel like she’s achieved enough, struck off all the things on her list that she wanted to do?
“No, not at all,” she replies. “Somewhere, I do have regrets. There are things I haven’t been able to obtain. I do feel bad sometimes; maybe if I had pushed a little more, I may have gotten this or that. So, I don’t feel like I’ve done all my work, or done enough.”
In 2023, she’s set herself some new goals to crush. “Of course, there’s the Olympic qualifying round, and qualifying is my first and biggest dream. It is a dream for all the players,” she adds.
She’d also want to spend more time with her family. “It’s been a while since I’ve spent an entire month at home,” she laments. “My sisters and mother and I all make food together—I miss that the most.” Surprisingly, none of her siblings or relatives play football! But she does know that there are plenty of kids in her hometown who started playing football because of her; when she visits home, she takes the time to play with them and coach them, something else she’s passionate about.
Now, when she tells her mother, “I’ve played enough, maybe it’s time to retire,” Ashalata says her mother motivates her to continue instead, countering with, “No, you’ve spent so much time and dedicated yourself to football. You didn’t even study properly—to come this far. To reach this level and now leave would be stupid! Work harder and try to do better.”
HT Brunch couldn’t be more honoured to be the first magazine to feature Loitongbam Ashalata Devi on the cover and offer her the recognition she truly deserves. Perhaps, we’ll make it into the biopic, too.
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From HT Brunch, January 21, 2023
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