Growing up, Seema Tomar didn’t have it easy. But, aided by the strong women of her household, this 37-year-old hit bull’s eye.
Seema, who was born in a patriarchal and conservative family in Johri village, Uttar Pradesh, is the only Indian woman to win a Silver Medal in the shotgun event at the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Cup 2010.
The shooting ace started with the air rifle in 2004, later switched to the shotgun event, and now specialises in trap shooting. In 2014, she won two gold medals at the Asian Shotgun Championships held in the United Arab Emirates.
Backed by her mother, Prakashi Tomar, and aunt, Chandro Tomar (whose journey was recently recreated on the silver screen in Saand ki Aankh), the shooter has successfully broken the shackles of a disapproving society and now stands tall as a role model for young girls – in her village and across India.
In an interview with Makers India, Seema speaks about her journey from a small village to the world stage, the support system that made it possible, and why parents need to let children pursue their dreams.
MI: How much resistance was there from male members of your family and how did you overcome it?
ST: There was a lot of resistance. I was admitted to shooting classes even before my mom and taiji (aunt). After 15 days, when my father and tau (uncle) came to know about it, my admission was withdrawn. According to them, I was grown up and should not take up such activities. That’s the reason I was abstained to start from junior level.
MI: You started with rifle shooting and then shifted to shotgun. How did that happen?
ST: I used to do rifle shooting and had a great score in it. But, once I visited Bareilly to take part in a contest. There I saw parents encouraging their children to take part in another contest. I found it to be a royal game; it mesmerised me. I was wondering if they would give me a chance and I would show them how to shoot.
Again, I went to my mother, saying that I wanted to learn shotgun. And, the way she supported me is again huge. She enrolled me to learn shotgun.
On the first day, I requested the coach to put my name at the bottom of the list as I wanted to know how it was played. And, at last, I won both goals.
MI: You won a silver medal at the World Cup and Shahrukh Khan had a role to play. Please tell us about it.
ST: Before taking part in the finals, I had already watched Chak De. It was my first time in a World Cup final, and my hands and legs were trembling out of nervousness. When I missed the first, second, and even the third target, I suddenly recalled Shahrukh’s dialogue from the movie: “These 70 minutes will never come back in your life.” I got a sudden burst of energy and changed the game.
MI: A lot of positive change must have occurred within your family and village. However, there are still many villages in India, especially in UP, Haryana, and Bihar, where women are not treated equally. What do you think about it?
ST: Yes, these things still happen. If f I talk about my village, a little bit of change can be witnessed but there is still a mindset that only boys can step out, play games, or even eat a particular diet. Girls are still restricted on many fronts.
There have been changes seen in Haryana after the movie Dangal, but not everywhere.
MI: What has been the impact of your journey and that of your mother, Prakashi Tomar, and aunt (tai), Chandro Tomar, on your village?
ST: They have had a very strong impact. It is due to their determination that I was able to take admission and play. Even though I had that passion, it was not possible without their efforts.
And then, coming to sports at that age so that their children could play and open the way to get jobs is a very big thing in itself.
MI: The movie Saand ki Aankh shows that people used to laugh at your mother and aunt. Is it true?
ST: Yes, it is true. Their (Seema’s mom and aunt) attire was normal for us, but not for the people who used to be present during games. People would laugh, saying what kind of dress were these old women wearing. Will they shoot also in this dress?
I was a child and used to become angry. My mother calmed me down, saying you focus on your game and we will focus on our game. Clothes do not matter.
From that time, I have not given a second thought, be it the fact that I belong to a small village, or should I dress up in another way, or should I have facilities like others. I accepted facts and ignored people.
MI: Coming to the movie, Saand Ki Aankh. were there any bits that were fictional or was it entirely a biographical narrative based on true events?
ST: There are small things that get added, but this movie is based on real-life events. Because people know that there were grandmothers who used to shoot in traditional attire. Like I said, my admission was cancelled, there were other things…they’re all there in the movie.
MI: There are other girls in your family who are into sports, and then there are those who have opted for some other profession. Please tell about that.
ST: My family is a family of shooters. My sister, Rekha Tomar, used to play in the university, but left after marriage. My niece, Ruby Tomar, is an inspector in Punjab Police; she also won a medal at university.
There are many other kids like Sonia, Preeti, Ram, Ratan, Ravi, Ishika, and Manvi; many are playing at the national level.
MI: Male members of the village used to be resistant. How are things after the girls have earned so much fame. Do they feel proud?
ST: Yes, definitely they feel proud. Earlier it was like that these old ladies are going to play and taking grown-up girls also. Now, if someone says they want to go to Seema Tomar’s or Prakashi Tomar’s house, they themselves come and drop them.
The men even encourage their children, citing our examples. They tell them to do well like how Seema has done and got a job and how grandmothers have done. They have started encouraging their children.
MI: Are boys from the family also stepping into sports?
ST: I help train children at home. Outside also, I help when I see potential in a child. I feel that I should provide them with the facilities I didn’t get, be it proper coaching or other things.
MI: We know a lot of change is coming about. Women are getting into all kinds of professions now. But I am sure, several women still have to break multiple barriers— including those in their family, their immediate society, and then in their professional world. What is your message to young girls about this?
ST: The first thing you must have is determination. Be it in sports, education, or in any other field, it matters how consistent you are. Your energy should speak first and convince your parents if they are unwilling.
I want to tell parents that if your child has a dream, give him or her a chance to pursue it. He may well be a Dr Abdul Kalam of the future.
MI: As you said, you’ve watched Saand ki Aankh many times. Do you watch movies often?
ST: Yes, I definitely watch movies. And, I’m a big fan of Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar’s movies. I also adopt good things from movies; I enjoy and take lessons.
MI: The biopic trend is ruling the movie industry. There are biopics on you, the Phogat sisters, and Kapil Dev coming soon. Is this as a good trend?
ST: See, people do not like fictional stories; even I don’t. Biopics show us a slice of real life; the actual struggle and lessons that can be learnt.
If I talk about Saand ki Aankh, it must have inspired people. They must have learnt that we can do anything at any age. This is the kind of inspiration we get from real stories.
MI: You have mentioned how growing up you used to wonder what sitting in a plane must feel like. And you had a surreal moment when it finally happened. Tell us about that.
ST: Growing up in the village, often as I lay on the charpoy looking up, I would see an aeroplane fly past. I used to wonder what it must feel like to be inside a plane, to be flying.
And in 2005, when I boarded a plane and flew with the Indian team, I automatically went back to that thought. That a long time back I used to think about this moment and today I was actually inside a plane, at the expense of the government. It was an altogether different feeling.