Manjiri Makijany’s directorial debut “Skater Girl,” which has been making headlines for its unique premise and innovative topic, is the feel-good movie you have been waiting for during the pandemic of 2021. Full of grit, determination and resilience, “Skater Girl” promises to melt even the coldest heart, leaving not a dry eye in the house.
The coming-of-age sports movie revolves around the life of Dalit teen Prerna Bhil (newcomer Rachel Saanchita Gupta), living a life bound by tradition and duty to her parents. For Prerna, growing up in Khempur, a little village in Rajasthan, is not particularly easy. While her brother Ankush (Shafin Patel) goes to school, her chauvinistic, conservative and trying-to-make-ends-meet father would rather supplement the family income, selling peanuts at the market and busy herself with household chores – the woman’s domain.
And then there’s the underlying daily reminder of her station in life by members of the upper caste. Even her first puppy love Subodh (Vinayak Gupta), belongs to the unattainable upper echelons of society, and any dreams of a happily-ever-after is quenched even before it’s allowed to bloom.
But everything changes with the arrival of an Indo-British advertising executive from London, Jessica (Amrit Maghera), in search of her roots (her father was adopted from the village – as noted by the stereotypical black and white under-the-banyan tree-picture, Jessica comes clutching in her hands). When her friend Erick (Jonathan Readwin) comes visiting on a skateboard, the children of the village are ignited with the love of skateboarding. These white saviors (notice the irony here) change Prerna’s world. Jessica and a friend end up introducing the children of Khempur to sophisticated skateboards.
“Skater Girl” is about the magical effect of this turn of events on Prerna, as she (and the other village kids) taste the exhilarating freedom of wheels under their feet. As Prerna succinctly sums it up, “Skating is something that feels like mine. There is no one to control. There are no rules to follow.”
There is no turning back now. Burdened by poverty, caste discrimination, patriarchy, bureaucracy, what have you, those fleeting moments when they zip through the village lanes, manages to put a smile on the faces of the village kids, especially the girls, their cares and caution are thrown to the wind. For those few minutes on that board, Prerna is free from the odds stacked against her in life.
Against the village’s disapproval, Jessica and Erick, determined to empower and encourage the newfound passion of these kids, set out on an uphill battle to build the kids their own skatepark. Ultimately, with the blessing of village Maharani, played by veteran actress Waheeda Rahman, who is moved by Jessica’s passion for the girls in the village and their future, gives her permission to build the skate park. Interestingly, the skate park created for the film is a community park now, where the girls are encouraged to dream according to the scroll at the end of the film. The film ends with the big skateboarding competition on the same day as a wedding, and Prerna has to choose between following her dreams and acquiescing to the family’s dictates. Any echoes of “Bend it Like Beckham” being purely coincidental.
It is this saccharine goodness that helps the film rise above its superficial exploration of pertinent issues. Within minutes of meeting Prerna, we see the kind of oppression she and her community face on a day-to-day basis. There are segregated water pumps in the village. The punishment meted out for shoddy uniforms and forgotten texts is being asked to sweep the corridors of her school, while her brother Ankush and his band of merry troublemakers are forced to take turns to clean the toilets. Not surprisingly, none of the upper-class kids seem to get their hands dirty! In another poignant scene, Jessica finds a spot where her father would sit as a young man, and when she asks Prerna to join her, she’s hesitant as the area belongs to the upper caste, thus highlighting the unspoken divide.
While these scenes do give us a rundown of how things work in the village, we find that there are no major hindrances from the villagers about these same kids being allowed the privilege of skating. It is impossible to believe that the upper-class families, who don’t allow their children to mingle with “them”, are accepting of the spotlight being shined on these Dalit children. The director certainly glosses over what is a pertinent issue in caste-ridden India.
In an India where Dalits face violence from upper castes for the simplest of actions — eating in the presence of high castes or riding a horse – and where Dalit women face routine sexual violence and where marrying an upper caste could mean possible death for a Dalit, the upper castes in Khempur sure seem a benign lot.
The worst that one of them does is admonish his son for mingling with people “not of the same status”. The sole student in Prerna’s school shown to be kind to her is from the upper caste. The local Maharani (also upper caste) is benevolent, compassionate and instrumental in Jessica managing to carry forward a crucial project for the kids. The result is an incomplete film that tiptoes around the issue of caste. However, one is almost kosher with this oversight, given the spunky and stellar performances. Each of the stars shines, essaying their powerful roles with heart.
Newcomer Rachel Sanchita Gupta creates an unforgettable Prerna we can all root for. She is warm and full of life in every scene of this film. When Prerna says she feels free when she skates, we can see the unbridled joy in her face and fly freely with her. Amrit Maghera as Jessica is sincere, while Vinayak Gupta as love-interest Subodh is earnest as a Brahmin boy torn between his attraction toward a Dalit girl and age-old traditions.
Bollywood veteran Waheeda Rehman is as graceful as ever as the benign maharani, the rich patroness of the skate park. But it is Shafin Patel, also making his debut, who steals the show as Prerna’s adorable and supportive sidekick/brother Ankush. There are also some sports-movie tropes we have to mention, which could have been avoided. For example, we know what will happen when the authoritarian dad, who wants to get Prerna married instead of believing in her dreams, sees her skate for the first time. And we also know how Prerna’s mother, a domesticated woman, would react to her daughter harboring such dreams.
The soundtrack by composer duo Salim-Sulaiman adds to the movie and is just as energetic as the film. “Shine On Me” by Salim-Sulaiman, Indian American rapper Raja Kumari and Mohd. Fazil is uplifting and rebellious at the same time, just like Prerna. “Maari Chalaange,” also composed by Salim-Sulaiman and sung by Sharvi Yadav, is a soul-stirring, rousing anthem.
Despite the flaws, director Manjari Makijany, who wrote the screenplay with her sister, Vinati (fun fact: they are daughters of Mac Mohan, most memorable as Samba in “Sholay”) has created a likable, heart-warming feel-good tale of a poor girl who battles adverse socio-economic conditions to pursue her dreams. Armed with a good-intentions-conquer-all mindset in a charming package, “Skater Girl” is a definite must-see. Los Angeles-based Makijany has directed three short films and worked as an assistant director with filmmakers Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins and Vishal Bharadwaj on “Dunkirk,” “Wonder Woman” and “Saat Khoon Maaf” respectively.
“Skater Girl” is streaming on Netflix.