Directed by: Manjari Makijany
Written by: Manjari Makijany and Vinati Makijany
Cinematography: Manjari Makijany, G Monic Kumar and Alan Poon
Edited by: Deepa Bhatia
Starring: Rachel Saanchita Gupta, Amrit Maghera, Shafin Patel and Waheeda Rehman
Streaming on: Netflix
After Skater Girl was shot in Khempur, a village near Udaipur in Rajasthan, the skating park that was built as a set for the movie was donated to locals. Which is probably the best thing about this well-intentioned but slight film.
Skater Girl is a fairy tale. Debutant director Manjari Makijany and her sister and co-writer Vinati Makijany imagine that a foreigner with a skateboard can triumph over the thorniest fault-lines in rural India – patriarchy, caste, horrific double standards and regressive conservatism. The skateboard isn't a toy. It becomes a symbol of freedom, courage and resilience. Follow your passion, the film exhorts – without a smidgen of subtlety. The Skater Girl of the title is named Prerna, who of course becomes an inspiration.
Prerna is a teenager from a lower-caste family. She doesn't go to school because she can't afford a uniform. But she is curious and eager to learn. Enter Jessica, a Britisher whose father was Indian. She arrives in Khempur on a two-week retreat, hoping to find mooring and purpose. Which she discovers in the children. In a sense, they save each other. Determined to offer them a shot at a better life, she ushers in a skateboard revolution.
A lone white woman goes against the locals – including a cop, an upper-caste school teacher and an unhelpful politician. In real life, this story would have several horrific possibilities. But in Skater Girl, the problems that arise collapse like a pack of cards. Jessica's friend Erick shows up, unbidden, to lend a hand. So do several of Erick's colleagues, who teach the children how to skateboard at a competitive level. One of them declares: "We are so stoked to be here." When Jessica hits a wall, a benevolent Maharani, played by an impossibly elegant Waheeda Rahman, plays fairy godmother and waves her magic wand.
The writing doesn't engage with the issues at hand with any depth. Jessica's response to caste is: "Log abhi bhi yeh saab maante hain?" Which took me back to that memorably ridiculous line in Laxmii, when a child says about an interfaith marriage that is facing parental opposition, "Yeh log abhi bhi Hindu-Muslim mein atke pade hain." It doesn't help that actor Amrit Maghera, who plays Jessica, has limited expressions. The dialogue comes off as even more banal. The same goes for Erick, played by Jonathan Readwin. He is saddled with lines like: "This is huge. It doesn't happen everyday. You just gave these kids their first board."
Thankfully the kids have more spark. Rachel Saanchita Gupta, as Prerna, and Shafin Patel, as her younger brother Ankush, are lively and moving. Rachel convincingly plays Prerna with a combination of innocence and fierceness. When she glides on the skateboard, with a smile on her face and her unkempt hair blowing in the wind, you genuinely wish more girls in this country could find the freedom that she does. Her delight becomes ours.
Manjari captures this exhilaration effectively: this is what happens when stifled lives are allowed a moment of recklessness. In one scene, Jessica astutely observes that people don't hate skaters. They hate their spirit. There is a lovely sequence in which Prerna and Ankush sneak out of their home at night to practise – the flashlights on their skateboard create designs on the cement floor of the park. As simplistic as the storytelling is, by the end, the emotion kicks in.
After all, no matter how impossible the scenario, it's always lovely to see a young girl take flight.
You can see Skater Girl on Netflix India.