175 grams: the disc that broke barriers

Many corporate professionals are gradually moving from cricket, tennis and squash to offbeat sports that are more popular abroad. One such sport that has its origins in the US, ultimate frisbee, has gained popularity in the country. This is a non-contact, self-refereed game, that relies on the integrity and sportsmanship of players.

Interestingly, this sport has also brought transformational changes in the lives of slum children, by bringing them in contact with well-heeled corporate executives. The essence of this change has been captured in the Sundance Film Festival award winner 175 grams (in the short film category) on the story of a Chennai-based ultimate frisbee team,  Fly!wild. The Sundance Film Festival is one of the largest independent film festivals in the United States.

In the first interview, Fly!Wild founder and coach Ram Kumar (popularly called Boon), a pharmaceutical industry merchandising professional narrates the story of the hand of corporate professionals in the Fly!Wild frisbee team who helped transform the lives of a group of teenagers from the slums, which is the theme of 175 grams, co-directed by former Jaguar Land Rover and Ford Motor executive, Aravind Iyer (second interview).  Kumar and Iyer tell domain-b correspondent Swetha Amit what brought 175 grams in contact with Fly!Wild, which is ranked among the top teams in India today. 

It must have been a proud moment to see your team Fly!Wild do the country proud at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. So how and when did you start playing Frisbee and how did your journey as a coach begin?
Ram Kumar: It started about five years ago. We were casually strolling by the beach and saw that a tournament taking place. We decided to go check it out and that's how we learnt that there was something known as the frisbee tournament.  Initially we started to play with friends in our locality,  but realised that we weren't getting it right. So after a break pf a couple of months, we resumed again.  We then got to know there was an ultimate frisbee club and  introduced ourselves to the president of the club.

After a point, it became difficult to get my friends to practice on weekends as they had other priorities like work and travel. I realised that I couldn't force them into playing.

Our team Fly!wild was getting knocked out of tournaments in the quarter-final stages as no one was very serious about the sport.  In comparison to the other teams, we were still amateurs and realised that we had to grow. In the meantime, I used to make it a point to go for all the pick-up games at the beach regularly. Then I began to play international tournaments in Singapore and Malaysia, which helped me gain exposure and enabled me to meet new players. It made me realise that ultimate frisbee was just not a game but a large network as well.
Fly!Wild was almost dissolved and that's when I decided that it was time to start recruiting new faces and train them. I often noticed boys who would watch us from a distance whenever we would play on weekends. In fact there was this coconut vendor from whom we would buy coconut water post our practice sessions who informed me about those yongsters.

He said that they seemed interested but were apprehensive as they came from humbler backgrounds compared to of us. Being a friendly and approachable person, I decided to meet these boys one weekend.  They were four  of them, all studying in their 12th and lived around the beach area. I decided to let them join us after their exams and that's how Fly!Wild initially began to restructure itself. In fact one more friend Sowmya, who appears in 175 grams, helped them immensely by taking time off to teach them English. Barring one boy who studied in an English medium school, the rest were all were from Tamil medium schools. She made it a point to sit with them every evening just to teach them and was instrumental in moulding them.

If I were to talk about Fly!Wild, it's a rather long story. This is not a bunch of people who would just meet up on weekends or before a tournament. A lot has gone into building this team and they almost feel like family.

What was your purpose and vision for these children from the underprivileged section? 
Kumar: When I met these four children for the first time, I started conversing with them casually. I spent about four months just getting to know them, understanding their lives and what they go through on a daily basis. By that time, they had completed their exams and would turn up at the beach every day.  I was also looking to improve the performance of Fly!Wild in the Chennai Heat tournament in October that year. However my focus was to first understand these children completely, gain their trust and make them accept me as one among them. 

Once that happened, they began to accept small gestures from me like buying something for them, which initially they refused.  Gradually I lent a hand in sponsoring their trips for tournaments.

Our prime focus and vision was to make them play first. It didn't matter whether they had proficient English skills or whether they were from the underprivileged section of the society. We thought that meeting people from different backgrounds would ultimately bring about a change in them. My motive was not to necessarily win a tournament. I was happy as long as they got the right kind of exposure. That's precisely what happened and that's the message which the film 175 grams emphasises. 

Ultimate Frisbee involves self-refereeing. Do you think this is instrumental in inculcating a sense of discipline amongst these children?
Kumar: Yes I would definitely say that it has brought in a lot of discipline. For instance, they are travelling to Dubai in March this year for the World Beach championships.  They have been sponsored by our community. People were willing to send these kids because of their discipline and their effort. 

In fact when I was trying to train them for tournaments, I had approached The Unit fitness camp which focused on cross-fit, to help us out. They were all youngsters with a bundle of energy who would just start playing a game without doing any warm ups. While it was fine in their younger days, post the age of 25, one tends to become more injury prone. In order to avoid that, we had asked The Unit to help us and they did. It was initially difficult since our classes were from 5 to 6 in the morning, for which we had to be up by 4:00 am. Everyone was in college, and being youngsters it becomes challenging to get them into that kind of regime. However everything worked out well and they disciplined themselves to train thrice a week.

Did you ever think ultimate frisbee would grow in popularity to such an extent? What makes it so viable and sought after?
Initially, when the frisbee culture started, there were just four teams. From there it has grown to a large number and it still continues to grow.  This is one such sport where once people start playing, it becomes very addictive. It is also very diverse and you will find that every team comprises members of ages  ranging from 20 to 40 years and from different backgrounds. It is a lot of fun but at the same time, this sport has also become competitive. You will find people who train seriously for the tournaments by going to gyms and boot camps. 

What is the role of corporates playing alongside with these youngsters? Do they lend a helping hand in coaching these children?
Yeah there are quite a number of corporate executives who play the sport along with us. With regards to coaching, it's not about a dedicated coaching session.  However these individuals definitely help the boys out whenever needed. In fact when you play on the beach, there is no difference in the mentality of the players where a person belonging from a particular team is not allowed to play with another team. In ultimate frisbee, anyone can play with anyone.  

When it comes to taking these underprivileged kids on tournaments, each tournament costs around Rs40,000 - Rs50,000 which includes accommodation and food. There are at least five such tournaments throughout the calendar year. Some of these corporate professionals pitch in with whatever amount they can.

Sports is known to be a great teacher. What are the lessons from ultimate that can be incorporated on to life and the corporate world?
There are definitely a lot of lessons one can learn from ultimate frisbee. Firstly, it makes the players calmer personalities. It imbibes that ability to maintain a cool head even when the tensest situations. So if you are a person who tends to lose your cool easily, ultimate frisbee will certainly help you change that .

Secondly, it's also a great leveler. When I started playing for instance, I had people who had graduated from the IIMs playing alongside. Just that feeling of being accepted as one among them gave me a sense of confidence. So in a sport like ultimate frisbee, people treat all ultimate players the same way irrespective of their background or educational qualification. It also teaches you the essence of team building, team spirit and leadership skills which can be put to use in life and the corporate world.

Coaching such underprivileged children can be a gratifying and a learning experience. How has it changed you as a person?
It has brought in a lot of change in me as a person. As I said earlier, before I started playing Ultimate Frisbee, I was a very hot-tempered person and would lose my cool easily. However I am a much calmer person today so much that even if the other person has made a mistake, I have no qualms about walking up to them and making amends. It has also instilled the ability in me to manage things more effectively. Today I have become more focused on doing a lot of things for these kids and helping them out as much as I can. According to me, making a difference to somebody's life is a fulfilling and a gratifying experience by itself.

Lastly, how do you see the future of the Fly!wild team? Do you think recognition of the kind the film gave them will enable them to spread their wings and fly higher?
The Fly!Wild team is well-established and well-recognised now especially after the release of the video of 175 grams. They boys become a lot more confident and mature today. Their English-speaking skills have improved vastly so much that they greet and talk to other players solely in English. They are on their way to completing their graduation soon. So far I think, both I and the ultimate frisbee community have done our part. I am sure they now know what they want to do in life.  And I see the Fly!Wild team come out with flying colours irrespective of what their choices are.

Aravind Iyer Aravind Iyer is an engineer who has worked with  Jaguar Land Rover and Ford Motor Company.  He is also the co-director of the short film 175 grams, which won the Sundance Film Festival award which showcases on how a sport like ultimate frisbee had a positive impact on kids from the underprivileged backgrounds.

First, let me begin  congrats on the marvellous achievement of winning the prestigious Sundance Film Festival 2015 award.
Iyer: Thank you, Swetha.

How did you come up with the idea of 175 grams, which is an interesting title?
I did my  MSc in automotive engineering in the UK and worked there for five years with Jaguar Land Rover and Ford Motor Company. Simultaneously, I also took acting lessons at City Academy in London. On returning to India, I worked at Robert Bosch and continued to learn acting and other facets related to acting such as direction, stage design, sound, etc, at  the Bangalore theatre group Misfit.

I play ultimate frisbee for a team called Airbenders in Bangalore, and attended the Annual Auroville HAT tournament in Puducherry, where I met Boon from the  Fly!wild team.

He told me about his team and I told him we should make a film about it. So that's how it all began. As for the title, 175 grams is the weight of the frisbee. In the last line of the movie Sowmya says ''all of them running behind 175 grams of plastic.'' As soon as we heard it, we instantly decided the film should be called 175 grams.

What made you choose a rather unconventional sport like ultimate frisbee as the theme?
There is so much to the sport that sets it apart from other conventional sports played in India such as cricket. At the crux of ultimate frisbee is the ''spirit of the game''. There are no referees in this sport, so it gives all individuals the responsibility to play fair. This has had a huge positive effect on all frisbee players. The sport is also gender inclusive where out of seven players two or three compulsorily have to be girls. It is less infrastructure-dependent as you could play it virtually anywhere.

Most importantly, it's a very popular sport in US. So we knew that people over there could relate to the film more easily as compared to any other sport played here.

Did you ever expect 175 grams to win when you submitted it as an entry for the Sundance Film Festival?
We knew we had narrated an honest story so we were quietly confident.

8 minutes is a short span of time and can be challenging when it has to make a powerful impact on the viewers as compared to a full-length  feature film. How did you overcome this challenge and manage to spread the wonderful message of sports within a short time span?
Today, the attention span of viewers is reducing rapidly and it has become very difficult to hold their complete attention for long durations. So we considered it a blessing to narrate the story in just 8 minutes. So we just got to the point and avoided adding anything extra to distract the audience.

Could you tell us more about the team Fly!Wild based on whom 175 grams is based?
The ultimate frisbee community is very close-knit in India. Fly!wild is among the top teams in India today. Members of the team have represented India at an international level.

Working with them was like a picnic. We finished filming the whole movie over a weekend.

175 grams showcases the positive impact of the sport on the lives of the players who just happen to live in slums. In a country like India where a large percentage of the population is still living impoverished lives, do you see any scope for an improvement in their lives with the rise in the popularity of ultimate frisbee?
Iyer: Definitely. Ultimate Frisbee is a very inclusive and open minded sport. Fly!wild have set an example as to how it has had a positive impact on their lives. We all can take a leaf off their book and try to replicate it in other areas.

Were there any corporate professionals involved? How do you see the effect of 175 grams on CSR initiatives incorporates?
There were no corporates involved in making the film. But it's definitely a great idea if they get involved and encourage a sport like this. It's one sport which has had a positive impact on many lives

In fact Usha international has been sponsoring a few tournaments and has encouraged the sport and its growth in India. However, it would be nice to see more companies getting involved as well.

Making such films can often turn out to be a life changing experience. How has it impacted or changed you as a person?
Iyer: I've learnt not to be a victim of circumstances from Fly!Wild. They just go out and express themselves without any inhibitions on the field. That's something I'd like to emulate and imbibe in life.

What two young Fly!Wild members  say:

Siva, one of the members of the Fly!Wild team, says: "It was an awesome feeling when we heard that 175 grams actually won at the Sundance Film Festival. I have been playing ultimate Frisbee for the last three years and share a very close rapport with my team members. I really enjoy playing this sport as it has given me a sense of direction and purpose. At present, I am in my final year B.com after which, I plan to pursue my MBA.''

Ganesh, another member of the Fly!Wild team: ''We all felt very excited on hearing about 175 grams winning. I have been playing ultimate for the last two-and-a-half years. What I like about this sport is the spirit of the game factor and the team spirit. I am currently pursuing my B A Economics and am in my final year. After this, I want to study further and will probably pursue it in the subject of Economics.''