Manjari Makijany hopes that her debut feature Skater Girl will start a conversation about skateboarding groups in India. Skater Girl has made an impact before it has even been seen in the country: the skating park that was built as a set for the movie was donated to locals in Khempur-Mavli district near Udaipur after the production was completed.
The Desert Dolphin Skatepark is a testament to Makijany’s ambition to highlight the importance of “following one’s passion and dreams, challenging conventions and not being afraid to change the status quo”. Skater Girl chronicles a teenager’s love for skateboarding and the obstacles she encounters in her pursuit. The heartwarming drama will be premiered on Netflix on June 11.
“The plan to build the park wasn’t initially there,” Makijany recalled. “Then we realised, wait a second, here we are making a movie about skateboarding and how skateboarding impacts change. Why don’t we put our money where our mouth is, so to speak? That was one of the highlights of making the film. All the challenges we faced while making the skate park made into the film.”
The park was built over 45 days in 2018 and handed over to the residents after the shoot was finished in 2019.
Skater Girl, originally titled Desert Dolphin, has been written by Makijany and her sister, Vinati Makijany. The story was partly inspired by a viral video of children skateboarding in Madhya Pradesh. An internet search led to many more such videos, said Manjari Makijany, who trained in filmmaking in Los Angeles and still lives there.
“We became fans of all the work being done across skateboarding communities,” Makijany said. “I hope the film will shine a light on the amazing work these communities are doing.”
The communities were not restricted to cities. Accordingly, Skater Girl is set in a village in Rajasthan. Here, Prerna, who cannot afford a school uniform or her textbooks, first encounters a skateboard through a visitor.
The catalyst is Jessica (Amy Maghera), a British woman of Indian extraction. Jessica is in the village on a personal quest. Moved by the enthusiasm of the village children and keen on changing their lives, Jessica gets her friend Erick (Jonathan Readwin) to loan his skateboard to the village.
It isn’t smooth sailing. Among the detractors is an upper-caste teacher at Prerna’s school who is upset that his son is mingling with the other lower-caste children. Skateboarding is accused of distracting the children from their studies. Finally, Prerna’s father blocks her path to self-fulfilment.
What is it about this strange new activity that attracts Prerna?” I like it because I feel it is something I can do, which is mine alone to achieve,” the adolescent tells her mother. “No rules or restrictions, like I am gliding in the sky.”
A young woman whom Makijany met during her research in Khempur stayed with her. The woman, who was married at a young age, teared up when Makijany asked her, if you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?
“The idealist in me was like, would her life have been different if she were in my place? Where would be?” Makijany said. “She needed to be allowed to dream.”
None of the children who appear in the movie knew how to ride a skateboard, the filmmaker added. Alongside improvisation and expression workshops conducted by Vinati Makijany, who drew on her experience in theatre, the children also attended a 45-day skating camp. There, they learnt to balance on their boards and deliver performances that blend into the narrative.
The two main child characters, Prerna and her younger brother Ankush, are played by first-time actors. Makijany and her team looked at “thousands of kids”, especially searching for the girl who would “have the chops to be Prerna”. Rachel Saanchita Gupta, who winningly plays Prerna, was cast from Delhi, while Shafin Patel, who plays the plucky and puckish Ankhush, was found in Mumbai.
Waheeda Rehman has a dazzling cameo as a local benefactor of the skate park. “We had been trying to get in touch with her – she has maturity and poise and elegance,” Makijany said about the acting veteran. “She has to do so little to bring so much to a role. She elevates the craft and the material.”
Rehman agreed as soon as she heard the idea. “She was emotionally moved and said, I am doing it, I have to be a part of this,” Makijany said.
Despite being second-generation film industry professionals, the Makijany siblings had never met Rehman before. Their father Mohan Makijany, better known as Mac Mohan, appeared in Hindi movies between the 1960s and the 2010s. Mac Mohan’s best-known films include Sholay, Khoon Pasina, Don and Shaan.
Mac Mohan’s fame became evident to his daughters when he turned up at an event at their school, Makijany recalled. The actor, who died in 2010, gave his daughters an important piece of advice about the vicissitudes of filmmaking.
“If there is one thing I can take away from my dad in my journey as a filmmaker, it is that success and failure should never change you,” Makijany recalled. “He said, if you are choosing to be a director, you will be successful one day, but remember, be consistent in who you are. That really strongly stays with me.”