This week on the podcast we’re joined by Kopal Goyal, the *ONLY* female outdoor filmmaker in India and founder of @inspire.crew.
Kopal talks about how her passion for climbing and her chosen career path were at odds with her upbringing and how she still grapples with the pull of societal expectations and tradition. She also shares about her film, Project Wild Women, which features female athletes across India who are pushing their sport and breaking barriers - and it was accepted into @banffmountainfestival in 2020! This episode covers pursuing your dreams against the odds, the power of a camera, and climbing as an escape from the naysayers.
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My name is Kopal Goyal and I am a rock climber and documentary filmmaker based in India.
Iris: Hello outdoor industry friends. Welcome to another episode of Outside by Design. I’m Iris, and I’m so excited to introduce our guest this week to you. Her name is Kopal Goyal and she is the only female outdoor filmmaker in India. She is also the founder of Inspire Crew, which she talks about at the end of this episode.
And this is a jam-packed episode. I’m so excited for you to hear it. Kopal talks about how her passion for climbing and her chosen career path in filmmaking was very much at odds with her upbringing and how she grapples with the pull of societal expectations and tradition.
She also tells us about her latest film, Project Wild Women, which features female athletes across India who are pushing their sport and breaking barriers. And that film was accepted into Banff Mountain Film Festival last year.
There is so much covered in this episode, from following your dreams even if others don’t believe in them, the power of a camera, and what it takes to start a huge movement for womens’ sports.
I’m excited for all of our listeners to get to know Kopal and be inspired by her. She is an amazing, amazing woman.
So let’s listen in.
Lisa: Kopal, thank you so much for being on our podcast today.
Kopal: Thank you so much, you too, for having me.
Lisa: And I'm so excited to have you, because I read online that you are the only female outdoor filmmaker in India. Is that true?
Kopal: Uh, yes.
Lisa: Wow. Wow. Okay. I'm very excited to talk to you. The first question we ask every single person is to describe where you are and what you are looking at.
Kopal: Okay, so that's a good question. So right now I’m in Pune, that's a city in Mumbai. And right now, just before we connected, I was just working on the editing of Project Wild Women and another film I’m working on, which is called Kokankada. And, yeah, so this is what I was working on before we connected.
Lisa: Cool. And that - let's talk about Project Wild Women. That is your film. So let's… what's your idea for it and what is it?
Kopal: So Project Wild Women started out of... so the story of Project Wild Women is inspired by my own journey of rock climbing. When I started practicing rock climbing, I wasn't… like my family were not really aware of what the sport is about. They are still not, but at that time it was a very new sport, even for the Indian community also. Now it has grown up, if I talk about four or five years of my climbing journey, then I've seen a lot of changes, but in the beginning it was… we all were in our struggling phase. I mean, like, everyone.
So as this sport was new and the culture I was living in was foreign for my parents. And because I was... back then I was 24 years in age. So at 24, I joined, I started practicing rock climbing. And so the kind of society I belong from, in that society girls shouldn't practice these kinds of things in her career. I mean, she should be well behaved. She should have good jobs so that, you know, other guy and the family can like that girl and she can become the family member. And, like, every day and every time I was… they were constantly talking to me in a way, like, “you should leave everything and come back home.”
So, my parents live in a different city, different state, and I was living in a different state. So, they were like, you're not doing anything. Are you wasting your life? Come back home. What is rock climbing? What will you do with this thing? Are you earning money? How much money are you earning right now? So I was like, okay, I'm not earning any money with rock climbing, but I’m earning, I mean, this is how I'm living my life. So they were like, no, that is not a reputable job. So I used to give part-time yoga lessons to people to earn money. And my second half I used to spend climbing. So they were like, no, this is not a reputable job. What will I tell other people who will ask me, like, what is your daughter doing? How is she earning? And we want to look out for a guy for you and, get married, get settled down. This is what a girl should do. This is what a well-behaved girl should do.
So yeah, this is… all of these words are making noise. I mean, in my head. I was not able to focus on my work. I was not able to focus on climbing. I was not able to focus anywhere and everything just got apart. And I think, like, no. This is not what I want in my life. I am not living this way just to listen to my parents, “Get married, get back home, get married, get married. This is not wise to practice such kind of sport. What is rock climbing? If you break your leg or something, who will marry you? Like, if you get injured, then like don't ask us to help you.” So all of these words are coming from their side and I was like, no. I am not going to sacrifice anything just for the sake of society and culture. And I am not going to leave rock climbing.
And with this I realized that... am I the only one? I was realizing that, am I the only one who must be facing all of these problems or are the other girls who would be facing... and I really wanted to know how they are keeping up with their lives with all of these struggles they are facing, the kind of words they are listening from every single person in their life. So this is how the idea of Project Wild Women came and everything got started.
Lisa: It is amazing.
Lisa: I am cheering for you that you didn't quit rock climbing and you said no.
Kopal: [laughs] Yes. And those days were very tough for me. I mean, I was struggling with so many disorders in my life, I wasn't able to eat properly, you know, just because if you are not happy inside of your mind and you are not able to eat properly. You are not able to do anything properly. So these kinds of situations I was living in.
And I used to cry a lot, because whenever I used to listen to these words, like, “get married, this is not your way to attract this kind of spouse, you are already 25, see other girls in our family, what they are doing. I mean, you are not an ideal girl. You are just... breaking out of tradition. These kind of goals are not... our family girls don’t do these kinds of things, what you are doing.”
So people used to come and talk to me and like, I used to feel like I'm getting tortured each and every moment. My cousin's brother used to talk to me separately and my aunt used to talk to me in another room and ask me, “promise me, you're not going to do this. Promise me, you are going to listen to your father, promise me..” this and that. I really got frustrated with everything. And I thought that I'm not living this life just to... that maybe someone one day or these people will… they, everyone used to manipulate me. I mean every single person was trying to manipulate me, like. One day... you won’t believe, one day I was sitting with my brother in a- it wasn't exactly a courtroom, but a place where we were meeting. And he was telling me, “Kopal, why don’t you get married? I mean, why don't you choose a comfortable life? Why are you trying to make your life difficult? I mean, you have a choice. You can choose your life. I mean, there is a boy who will make every... make your wishes come true. Every single wishes come true. Then why aren't you getting married? Why are you like, why do you want the struggle in your life?
Kopal: So I said that, I don't want anyone to fulfill my wishes or my demands. I am enough for myself. And if you guys think that I am not enough, then I'll prove maybe one day. So this was the type of environment I was living in.
Like I was living separately from everyone, but like, I wasn't separated. I mean, they used to call me, they used to manipulate me over phone calls. My father used to yell at me. And my mother, sometimes she got frustrated and she told me that just because of you, I get to listen to all of these things. I don't want to listen to anything now, please listen to your father and do whatever he's saying.
Kopal: So I used to yell at my mother, so my mother, she had to listen to her husband and also she had to listen to me about what I wanted in my life.
Lisa: Families are complicated. And you were being true to yourself.
Kopal: Yes. I actually tried being true to myself. Otherwise I won't be, I won't be speaking to you today. Maybe I would have got married to someone and maybe have two or three children. And thus be crying, what I have done with my life?
Lisa: Uh huh. I'm so glad that you... I'm so glad that you stayed true to your path and climbing. And while this was going on, did your rock climbing friends and your rock climbing community support you?
Kopal: Yeah, they have supported me. So I wanna say that... so while at the same time that all of these things happened, but on the other side, I was like, those days were the best climbing days of my life.
I mean, climbing became my escape at that time. I didn't want to pick up my phone. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Because I knew that everyone is going to repeat that same thing, “Kopal, what are you doing, this is not what our family girls do. This is not a reputable thing. Do some reputable job.” I mean, I used to say, is teaching yoga not a reputable job? I mean, like, I am making people aware of good health.
So the climbing community was supportive. I mean, I had a few friends who used to make me feel like, you can do it. You can do whatever you want in life. You can do it, like, don't listen to anyone. And if, if anyone is hurting you, then come here, practice climbing, and do work. You are not gap. Like, what have you have ever thought of that you won't be able to do it? I mean, prove yourself, just hang on the wall and keep climbing, keep climbing. This will solve everything. So I used to do the same and those days were definitely best days of my climbing.
Lisa: Yay. And how did you start finding other girls and other women who did action sports?
Kopal: So I actually found all of them through social media sites and through some of my friends and friends. So this is how I found all of them. It took me almost one month to find all of them, because people are not aware that women practice these kinds of sports.
I mean, I was actually looking out for someone that's in downhill mountain biking and, like, nobody told me... I mean, they were not even ready to believe in my ideas that… like, when I told them, “this is what I am trying to do with Project Wild Women,” they laughed at me. And they literally asked me, “Kopal, is this idea real? I mean, how will you find these 14 women? I don't know even one, you are talking about 14. So how will you find them? You're talking about downhill mountain biking and paragliding and snowboarding and other sports. So this idea is rubbish. Maybe you should call it something else.”
And the other thing they were saying that, “how will you cover these fourteen women? I mean, you will mess up with your film or your document or whatever you're working on. Stay focused on one character and like, follow that.” So these were the things I was listening to everywhere. Like, so, yeah.
Lisa: But you knew. You knew that it was important to tell lots of stories.
Kopal: Yes. Yes. And I was very happy that I found all of them. And you won't believe, so, even now there are snowboarder in India, snowboarder girl in India. There are girls who go and practice, but I haven't seen any girl who I can call like a “snowboarder.” And there are no proper skier girls. There are no... so the paraglider I have in my film, she's one among the two commercial paraglider in India who can do tandem and the other things also. So these... and the down to mountain biker, she's the only one who practiced downhill mountain biking, and because of her own struggle in her life now, she is not able to practice downhill mountain biking because she has limited access, she has limited resources, the place she belongs from, they don't have that like that kind of facility where she can practice downhill mountain biking. And I'm glad that I’ve covered her, I’ve met her, I have lived with her family, so yeah.
Lisa: Wow. I just Googled it, and the population of India - the internet tells me - is 1.35 billion. And so out of over 1 billion people…
Lisa: Wow. Like one, one or two women participating in these sports. And you’re... you're one in a billion! You’re the only female outdoor filmmaker in India. That’s wild.
Kopal: That also gives you a goose bump and makes you feel proud. But at the same time, it is funny because I really want people to believe in other gender. I mean, people used to look at me and tell me that, “Are you going to do all of these things alone? I mean, look at you.” So I have faced so many… “looks” I would say, and I'm glad that I overcame all of them, all of them.
And now I am happy and glad to say that we have women who practice extreme and gravity sports in India. And you won't believe, after that, when the trailer of this film came out, people connected with me and they passed other information, which I didn't know. I mean, there are other sports also practicing and those come in the category of extreme in all those sports. And I am really waiting and looking forward to go and meet those women.
Lisa: Yeah. That's so cool. And your film has been quite successful in 2020, it was selected into Banff Mountain Film Festival. The most prestigious mountain film festival there is.
Kopal: Yes, I got - so the day I received that email, I got so emotional. I felt like I couldn't believe this has just happened. I mean, I've waited for this thing for many years, and this has happened now. I've received that email and now this is going to happen. So that was a very happy moment for me.
Lisa: Yes. And how does your... does your family understand what a big deal and what a success that is? Do they understand now?
Kopal: So the funny thing is, for them, the most important thing is how much money I have earned. So, I don't know, how should I take this? But I have talked to many people that they have made me understand that, “Kopal, don't take your parents wrong.” I mean, for them, they think that money is required in today's life. And if you're not earning money and if you're just doing your work and giving away everything, then you're not going to survive. So it's like, when I told them this has happened and my film has got selected at Banff, so they were happy. And my father asked, “what will happen now?” So I told him that, what actually happens and they were like, how much, are they giving any amount?” So I said, yes, they will follow in the name of the filmmaker. So they were like, “how much?” So I told them and they were like, “Oh no, this much, or this is not going to work.” But then I told them, “mommy and Papa, this is going to happen.” I mean, this is big, this is very big news that this has happened. My film has got selected there and, like, people will know this film, people will know about me and this is what I want in my life. And money will come, of course. But this is what is important also.
Lisa: Yes. That's amazing. Why... what is inside of you that makes you so strong and so good at carrying forward with your dream?
Kopal: So, whenever I fell apart, I only thing that... I haven't listened to all of those rubbish just to give up. When I was... so I belong from a village where there is no facility. Where there is no education, good education facility, no extra curricular activity facilities, and everything.
And at a very young age, I had to leave my home for further studies. And from that time I am like, I had so many things in mind that, okay, now I am... I am going to be an independent woman. I have to do everything on my own. I have to plan for my life. Like I started getting things in a way, like I never used to before leaving my home.
And I have faced so many problems when you go to a different city. And, before that, when I used to be at home, I was like, I was like a very home girl. I mean, you can imagine how a person lives in a village, where there is nothing, nothing at all. Like, my life was only limited to going to school and coming back to home, and [inaudible] and playing with my dolls and listening to my mother, listening to my father, cooking, cooking, and these were the things. And when I left my home and I shifted to another city, I started doing everything on my own. And from the very beginning, I have noticed one thing: that people have never taken me seriously. I don't know why, but maybe I look… I look innocent. My face looks innocent. That's what they have not taken me seriously or they think that, “I can say whatever I want to say to this girl.”
So, yeah, this is a funny thing, but I have faced this problem. And in my entire life, this has happened. Even today also, I face these kinds of problems. I mean, people think that I can say whatever I want to say to this girl. She won't mind. She won't mind.
So whenever I am in any problem and I think no, this is enough. I don't want to be in this situation. So I just think that I haven't gone this far just to give up on everything, give up on every struggle I have faced and overcame.
Lisa: That's amazing. You just kept going.
Kopal: I keep going because I haven't left any choice for myself. I am doing whatever I wanted to do in my life. And if I gave up on these days, then I think that would be the biggest mistake of my life, that I could have done that, but just because of the other person and other reasons I have given up. So that shouldn't be a reason for any person to stop doing anything.
Lisa: Agreed. So how, how did you get into your creative process? How did you get a camera and how did you learn how to start filming?
Kopal: So, I got my first camera through my father. He... I wanted that and he gave me. And in the beginning, I didn't know the importance of having a camera. Because I just wanted and fulfilled my desire. That's why I demanded and he fulfilled that demand.
And after that... so I did my bachelor's in mass communication, advertising, and journalism. And then I realized that I can do so many things with a camera. I can cover any person’s story. I can click beautiful photographs. I can create storytelling or a series of photographs, so many things.So after completing my graduation, and while I was doing my graduation, I got a job. And at that time I was working as a video editor, news editor.
Kopal: So that was a complete desk job. Eight hour, nine hour job. And while I was doing that job I realized that this is not something I want to do for the rest of my life, or even for maybe another year. So I realized this thing and I gave up on a job and I started looking out for other career options. But I wasn't very sure that what I want in my life at that period of time when I was in college.
So somehow, one day I got interacted with a climber, an Indian climber. And this is how everything started. So first of all, when I saw that picture of an Indian person climbing, I got very excited and I was amazed to know other details about that photograph, other details about that person.
And I started talking to that climber and he told me that this is what happens in India and very few people are in rock climbing. This is what we are struggling now, we are facing problems with sponsors and proper training systems, proper resources. But at that time he was preparing for nationals competition. So without giving a second thought, I traveled to different city. That time I was living with my parents. So I told my parents that I want to go to a Delhi and I want to see how this national competition happens and how they perform. How do they climb?
And when I went there, actually, I was really, really amazed to see people of every age climbing. And they were falling and they were climbing again. They were participating in different things. I didn't know the name, but later I got to know that is called bouldering. This is what you call speed climbing. This is what you call lead climbing, and this is how they train.
And after a few days I joined rock climbing. And once I joined rock climbing, and while I was also watching other athletes practicing rock climbing, I thought about all these days when I was searching the internet about rock climbing, I only found foreign peoples climbing. I didn't see any Indian climbers, I didn't see any picture where there is an Indian climber performing, practicing, any of these things.
So at that time I realized that, okay, this is what I can do with my camera. I can document these people and tell the world that we have climbers in India also. I mean, there are people who practice, who are practicing these kinds of sports in India also, and people will see them. At that time, the other thing I had in my mind that if I click good pictures and if I start making documentary short videos, I will somehow be able to help those athletes to get sponsored.
Because they used to keep telling me, do you know Chris Sharma, do you know, Alex Honnold do you know this and that? They have good photographs, and you have to present this and that to sponsors and this is how they select athletes. And this is how this happens. We're already working on our strength and one only thing is left is proper documentation and you do for us. So I was already to document, I went for rock climbing tours with them. And I document.
So this is how my interest in extreme sports documentary filmmaking developed, and slowly Project Wild Women happened. Because.... yeah, I already told you that it came out of my own rock climbing experience.
Lisa: That's an amazing story. I love that rock climbing became a catalyst for you to really grow and climb upward as a person.
Lisa: It's beautiful.
Kopal: And other things were also happening when people used to get to know about me, that there is some girl who hangs like this and who, like, clicks photographs while climbing.
So this also gave me kind of motivation because people actually came to me and told me that, how can I become like you? How can I be like you? What have you done? I mean, what studies you have done and for how many years were you training yourself for this? And I told them, nothing, I mean, I have done this, and I climb because I've wanted to understand each and everything about climbing and I wanted to understand why that particular move, which an athlete is taking is important. And I wanted to show exactly the way it is. I didn't want to manipulate with my filmmaking elements. I didn't want to manipulate the way filmmakers manipulate things. I mean, I wanted to, like, cover everything in the real time and the real situation and portray real things.
So, yeah, everything just got along and I'm happy that I have experienced so many things now because while I was shooting for Project Wild Women, I have tried other sports was just, just to fulfill this angle that I don't want to, like, I don't want to film anything if I don't understand anything. I will only film that person if I understand that sport, if I understand the emotions behind that thing, if I understand the mindset he goes through or she goes through while performing that sport.
Lisa: Yes. And so you, you tried every sport?
Lisa: You tried mountain biking?
Kopal: Oh, so no. Mountain biking, I didn't try because... this is the only sport which I haven't tried because that girl, she, one day she asked me while I was there, she asked me, “Kopal, I think today you are going to try downhill mountain biking. I'm so happy that you are going to try.” So the other day I saw her fall. She fell very bad. And I was like, I have to go to other locations also! And there is no one who can help me, so I'll come next time and I’ll try [laughs]. I’m not going to try it.
Lisa: [laughs] Yes, it hurts.
Kopal: I told her, if I break my leg, who will help me? And my tickets were booked and I've invested so much and I can't afford losing all of those plans. And so I told her, no, no, no.
Lisa: In the future.
Kopal: [laughs] In the future. But, so essentially these days, while I was watching my friends practicing these things, boyfriends, I was observing the kind of trails they go through. I was very much like, okay, I want to try downhill mountain biking. I need a bike. I need a bike. And I told one of my friends that I really wanted to try downhill mountain biking, but he said that, “okay, you do rock climbing. So first do something big in rock climbing, and then you have a lot of time to try other sports also.”
So I told him, “Okay, you are right. Maybe I should get back to climbing and I should make something, a project, and complete that project. And then I’ll try other sport also.
Lisa: Smart. [laughs] Cool. Well, is there anything that I haven't asked you that you would like to tell our audience?
Kopal: Yes. I would like to talk about Inspire Crew.
Kopal: So Inspire Crew is the company which I have formed. So the reason and the birth of Inspire Crew came out of Project Wild Women. So while I was working on Project Wild Women, I always knew that the kind of messages I am trying to convey through this film, that couldn't be limited to the film only. I mean, this is big, this is something big. And this won’t change in one day or one year, or maybe two years. I have to invest so many years to make this real. Because through Project Wild Women I am talking about an quality that happens. I'm trying, I'm focusing on gender biases in playgrounds. I’m talking about empowerment through sport. I'm talking about information gap, which we have in our society. I'm talking about the kind of culture we should... the kind of culture we should create to make a better living and make sure that each and every person can follow that their heart, follow their passion, follow their mind. I mean, there shouldn't be a single person who is not able to do what they love.
So, this is how Inspire Crew was born. And the core message of Inspire Crew itself is empowering people through extreme and outdoor sports, regardless of age and gender and social status. So under this company, I'm working on so many things. Like, I'm making people aware that, um, they can help Indian athletes who are underprivileged. I mean, they are performing sports, but they haven't... they haven't proper resources. So if they can, they can help these athletes to grow. And I'm also working on a program where I am targeting young parents and kids and adults who work with kids and underprivileged kids also, so that I can make them aware about how they can bring up the kids. Because everything I... in my personal experience, things start at a very early age. I mean, when you are eight years old or maybe six years old. We, as a younger person, a mature person now, we can see that there is something wrong happening in society, and this shouldn't be done. I mean, people start differentiating between genders at that age. And through this program I will try to make parents learn that you shouldn't differentiate in your kids on the basis of gender, you should treat them equal, provide equal opportunities, provide them equal playgrounds so that they can become what they want in their life.
Kopal: So these are things I am walking on under Inspire Crew. And I really want to give the message of that, don't differentiate anything on the basis of gender. Or age or social status.
Lisa: That's amazing. That's important work that you're doing.
Kopal: Yes, very important.
Lisa: Oh, wow. I am honored that you were on the podcast today.
Kopal: I'm like, I'm happy to have talked about these things to you.
Lisa: Yes. Where, where can people follow you on the internet? Where can people find you?
Kopal: They can follow me on Instagram, Inspire Crew has an Instagram account also, and they can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn also. I'm everywhere because your work makes you present everywhere. Nowadays living without social media is difficult because everyone is there. So.
Lisa: That's true. And where, where can people find your film, Project Wild Women?
Kopal: So, yeah. So I am releasing Project Wild Women on 25th December, and this will be a worldwide release so they can visit Inspire Crew website and they will be able to find this film and they will be able to watch.
Lisa: Wonderful. We will put links in our podcast notes and people can click right on it from this podcast episode.
Kopal: Yeah. So I have made a separate page just for the film release, under Inspire Crew which is called Adventure On Demand. So we are presenting three films, including Project Wild Women and the other film I have worked on, which is called Kokankada, which I told you in the beginning and the third film one of our friends’. So we have collaborated, a collaboration, and we are presenting this film. Three wonderful films under Adventure On Demand.
Lisa: Adventure On Demand?
Kopal: Mhmm. So the link will be inspirecrew.com/adventure on demand.
Lisa: Perfect. Okay. We will find it and put a link in there. Well, thank you so much for your time and sharing your story. And I have really enjoyed learning and listening to your story.
Kopal: Oh, thank you. You too. I mean, this really means more to me because this is my first podcast. So I'm so happy to share things with you and I hope our audience enjoys this session also because I just wanted to tell them that don't listen to anyone. I mean, if you really want to do anything, you are able to do it. Just listen to your heart and you will be able to do it.
[outro music plays]
Iris: Thank you so much for joining us on the show, Kopal, and thank you to every single one of our listeners for tuning in to the Outside by Design Podcast. If you are new to the show, make sure you hit the subscribe button wherever you listen and leave us a review if you haven’t already - that really helps us grow the show.
Please follow us on Instagram @wheeliecreative and you can head to wheeliecreative.com/podcast for more information about the podcast and older episodes and transcripts.
This show is produced by WHEELIE, a creative agency for people who thrive outside.
I’m Iris, and thanks so much for being here.