Discovering the world of skateboarding and its social as well as cultural impact wasn’t enough for LA-based filmmaker Manjari Makijany. After intense research, which included meeting skater communities around India, and identifying the correct setting for her coming of age sports drama, Makijany and her producing partners, sister Vinati and husband Emmanuel Pappas, went a step further. They made an approximately 14,500 sq ft large skatepark near Udaipur. The park, called Desert Dolphins, was the training ground for the child actors as well as a location for the skating contest in Skater Girl. And once filming was complete, the team handed over the park to the local community.
Skater Girl (earlier titled "Desert Dolphin"), is Makijany’s first feature film following three short films. The daughter of Mohan Makijany, better known as Mac Mohan, who played Sambha in Sholay, has previously assisted filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Vishal Bhardwaj (Saat Khoon Maaf).
Described as “India’s first skateboarding film”, Skater Girl follows a 16-year-old in rural Rajasthan whose life changes when she meets a British-Indian woman who introduces her to skateboarding. Rachel Sanchita Gupta, Shafin Patel, Amrit Maghera, Jonathan Readwin and Waheeda Rehman star in the film, which, through the lens of sport, spotlights themes of gender inequality, caste discrimination, empowerment and upliftment. Edited excerpts from an interview with Makijany:
Why did you focus on skateboarding?
I discovered that skateboarding was a movement that was thriving across India. That led us to a journalistic approach of meeting all the skate communities across India and understanding what it is about skateboarding that creates change, disruption and social impact. I was fascinated by what skateboarding can do. What we got from talking to skaters in India and across the world, across all age groups, is that it is a catalyst and a vehicle to something.
How did that research bring you to a story about a rural girl in Rajasthan?
There are so many skater girls in Madhya Pradesh, Kovalam, Mumbai and Delhi. We met so many girls who are skating in cities and rural communities. We also discovered Skateistan, a not-for-profit that works in Cambodia, Afghanistan, South Africa etc to empower children through skateboarding and education. They inspired the skatepark in Janwar, Madhya Pradesh.
The social change Skateistan has managed to achieve is incredible. Skating has helped girls in war-torn areas go to school. Their work really inspired us. So we thought why not build a skatepark in a state which does not have one and where the girls can be empowered.
Did you find children who could act or children who could skate or both?
We met thousands of girls and boys to find these actors. We did workshops everywhere. We also looked at actual skater girls. It was alright if they didn’t know skating, but they had to fit the role. We knew we could always train them. For five and a half months the children in the film learned how to skate. None of them had ever stepped on a board before we started filming.
We really had to build our own skate community in Rajasthan. Our coach trained them in skating and Vinati trained the kids and local actors through theatre and expression workshops. In the skate contest at the end of the film, we had real skaters from different communities play themselves.
Was it easy for you to persuade Waheeda Rehman as the queen?
I always wanted Waheeda Rehman to play the queen. We didn't know her before and it took a long time to get in front of her. People think because you are from a film family you have access, but it's not always easy. Even though you have amazing goodwill, you still have to prove your worth. When we finally did meet her and narrated her scenes to her, she immediately said this is a story she wanted to be a part of.
What were the challenges in building the skatepark?
We reached out to Make Life Skate Life, a non-profit that makes skateparks and teaches skating classes around the world. They introduced us to 100 Ramps and HolyStoked Collective who put together a team to build this skatepark. It was quite a journey to come up with an international level skatepark design that could be left behind, but also one that was conducive to filming.
It was a big challenge but we had an amazing skate construction crew from Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Indian skaters from Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi. Having seen what Skateistan, Janwar and Kovalam did, I said we have to do something otherwise we are just outsiders coming in, filming something and going away. Also there were logistical issues with shooting in an existing skatepark.
How did you identify Khempur, Udaipur as the right location?
There were three considerations: It had to be a place with many children because we were making a park and leaving it there. Khempur has thousands of children. Secondly, the village had to have concrete roads for skating scenes outside the park. And thirdly it had to be a place where the park would inspire a whole new generation. We also met many girls in the rural community in Rajasthan who really inspired me when we talked about how you can dream.
Do you believe that cinema should have social impact?
No, I don’t. This was just an opportunity where off ground, outside of the film, we could create social impact. For Emmanuel, Vinati and myself it matters that we do something that lives beyond the film, to have an opportunity to do something that positively impacts the community outside the film. Having said that, a film can talk about social issues, but it needs to be entertaining. If I made a boring, preachy film, no one would want to watch it. A film needs to have drama, humour, themes of identity and relatability.
Your future projects include the documentary 'Skate Basti' and Spin, the Disney Channel’s first Indian-American project.
Yes. Skate Basti is a documentary feature about the making of the Desert Dolphins skatepark and its impact on this village. Spin is in post-production and releases very soon. It is also a coming of age story, this time through music. I think this is a great time for diversity and inclusion, it’s a great time to be Indian and a great time to be in Hollywood.
Do people say ‘Arre oh Sambha’ when they meet you?
No, they don’t. But when we were in college in Mumbai people called us ‘baby Sambha’. But not anymore.
Skater Girl will stream on Netflix from 11 June.