Director: Manjari Makijany
Language: Hindi (with English subtitles)
Genre: Sports Drama
Running Time: 107 minutes
Released by Netflix in June 2021
Initially titled the Desert Dolphin, theSkater Girl is a coming-of-age story. Set in a remote village in Rajasthan, India, the film follows Prerna (Rachel Saanchita Gupta in her debut performance), a local girl in her teens living a life bound by tradition and duty to her parents and community. The film director Makijany states that, ‘the film is not a biopic based on anyone’s life story nor is it a documentary. It is not Gond or Reinhard’s story’. However, viewers familiar with the story of Ulrike Reinhard‘s skatepark and Asha Gond‘s rise as one of India’s top skateboarders, will find similarities between the movie and Gond’s life.
The film is based on the introduction of a ‘Skate board’ by a London-bred advertising executive Jessica (Amy Maghera) who arrives in the village of Khempur outside the city of Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan in India, to learn more about her late father’s childhood there. It highlights and celebrates the determination of Prerna to chart out her own life when she experiences an exhilarating sense of ‘freedom’ for the first time in life as she learns to skate. The film also exposes the deep-seated patriarchy that dominates Rajasthan culture. The harsh agricultural economy is particularly tough on small scale farmers who spend their lives eking out meagre lives, trapped in the life-long debt bondage of landlords and shylocks who charge exorbitant interest loans and ensure the enslavement of generations of farmers. A film released in 2019 ‘Saand Ki Aankh’ based on the true life stories of sharpshooters Chandro and Prakashi Tomar, dwelt on these themes as they rebelled against their lives of misery, violence and patriarchy.
As is so common in India, the caste element assigns whole communities to lives of poverty and drudgery. Prerna will soon get married off as a child bride to one of her own caste. Her sole purpose in life will be to produce children, feed the family and accept meekly the feudal and patriarchal violence meted out on her as a woman. She is not considered worthy of any education and the few times she does attend school she is subject to ridicule and insult. Her younger brother ‘Ankush’ meanwhile is sent to school to attain a social status that will earn him a hefty bride dowry when he does get married. Prerna’s mother is a terrified housewife who while sympathetic to Prerna’s aspirations lives in the shadows of a feudal and violent husband who is also the father of her two children. Prerna is a product of a precarious 8-month pregnancy; in spite of this the physically ailing mother was forced to bear a second child to satisfy the needs of her husband to have a son. Prerna’s father’s male ‘pride’ allows neither Prerna nor her mother to work to supplement the meagre family income. In these pathetic circumstances enters a UK ‘desi’, Jessica, who comes to the village to find the roots of her late father who once owned property in the village and later emigrated to the UK.
The rest of the film is a feel-good narration of Prerna’s journey towards learning skating; enduring the restrictions and violence of a feudal family structure; escaping from a forced wedding; the heroics of her brother ‘Ankur’ and fellow village children and clinching of a trophy in the all-India skating competition.
A salient point is the influence the internet has on a community’s aspirations for a greater say in their own lives. When the skating mania overtakes the village and the children start skipping classes, the system breaks down.
When the local police chief imposes a fine of R500/- and a ban on skating within the village, the children decide that enough is enough. They decide to follow the example of Mahatma Gandhi who led the people of Gujarat in marching for their rights during the great ‘Salt March’ of 1930. The children similarly organize a march demanding their right to skate in the village – this is soon scuttled but the point is made that there would be no turning back.
While the plot of the film is a fictional one; the one real event is the building of the ‘Skatepark’ at Khempur which is currently Rajasthan’s first, and India’s largest, skatepark. Over three thousand children were auditioned for the film, many of them skaters from skate communities across India. The filmmakers spent over a year researching, writing and meeting with teenage girls and young boys in Rajasthan to write Prerna and Ankush’s characters as authentically as possible. Fifty-five skaters from across India featured in the movie including 34 local skaters from Khempur.
Rather disturbing however, is this apparent need to introduce foreigners to ‘rescue’ the local people from their miserable lives. Foreign funded projects, welcome as they are, should find less condescending ways of telling ‘our’ stories. Would it have been all that difficult to have an Indian entrepreneur/student play the part of Jessica? After all, the poverty in the developing world is a direct consequence of neo-colonial and neo-liberal adventures by the so-called developed and foreign world. We are perfectly capable of finding the solutions best suited to our needs if only we have the freedom to do so, and not be dictated to and interfered with.