The most recent movie about Indian villagers playing an unlikely sport because a Western benefactor taught it to them was Million Dollar Arm, about a baseball team being recruited from poor and talented Indian youth. Skater Girl is the feminist version of this trope—an underprivileged teen girl from a backward village discovers an unusual sport, and her life is transformed by the miracle of this exposure. Her western guides are compassionate saviors, and western audiences can watch the poverty in the movie with an unblemished conscience.
Skater Girl caught my attention because skateboarding was such an original and unlikely activity to be adopted in an Indian village. It’s still considered the ultimate American thrill ride, masquerading as a sport. When the movie began I assumed that the British-Indian character called Jessica, (played by Amy Maghera) is the savior-heroine who will discover a prodigy in an Indian backwater and, through the generous beneficence of her patronage, the poor little Indian girl’s life will be transformed.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the girl in question wasn’t presented as a prodigy at all, but as a girl terrified of falling off the skateboard. And her white friend is less of a savior than a helpful friend who is battling her own identity crisis.
Prerna, (played by newcomer Rachel Saaanchita Gupta) is a teenager in a backward Rajasthani village with a tailor-made oppressively patriarchal family. Her father is an impoverished peanut farmer who refuses to let his wife work to supplement the family income, so Prerna is pulled out of school to help with the selling of peanuts.
Prerna yearns to be in class with her peers but is restricted by her father and, on the few occasions, she does attend, by her lack of basics, like a uniform and textbooks. Enter Jessica, a British-Indian woman of mixed parentage, who comes to Prerna’s village looking for some sort of catharsis through a connection to her deceased father’s birthplace.
While wandering around the village, she encounters Prerna and her little, lovable imp of a brother Ankush (Shafin Patel), who drags around an improvised, homemade go-cart that resembles a skateboard except that he sits on it. The children are taken with Jessica who comes up with the idea of teaching them how to skate. Soon she has an entire village of children trailing her on makeshift boards and she eventually spends her own money to equip them with the real thing.
There is the inevitable culture clash between stuffy village elders and this band of nascent young skaters overrunning the village and crashing into shops and homes and people. When ‘No Skating Allowed’ signs are put up by the local bureaucrats, Jessica devises an ambitious scheme – enlisting the help of her skater friends in India to build a skate park for the village children.
The film takes the siblings on a route that is as predictably planned as a skate park’s manufactured ramps, right up to its conveniently orchestrated ending. Of course, Prerna’s oppressive father is against the skating adventure and the plot revolves around all the chips stacked against her because she’s a girl. The movie crams in a lot of social issues––when an upper caste boy in her school gets friendly with Prerna, we get a dose of the caste hierarchies that still exist in Indian villages.
However, the main point it makes–– of a psychological barrier suddenly crumbling in a young girl’s mind and opening a whole new and exciting dimension of reality for her is what gives the film some originality.
Prerna doesn’t become a champion skater—she learns to become the champion of her own life and desires. Skating becomes a metaphor for freedom.
After overcoming her initial fear of falling and embarrassing herself, she begins to feel uninhibited by any roadblocks in her way, including oppressive customs.
Rachel Gupta who plays Prerna infuses the role with incredible charm as she zips along the narrow village lanes with the most endearing grin of delight ever seen in a movie. We see her become more emboldened, and more able to stand up to her father’s sexism.
Skater Girl is surprisingly engaging: there are many winsome and nuanced touches in the movie which offset some of its predictability. In one scene, Jessica asks Prerna what she wants to be when she grows up. She’s baffled by the question because she’s never imagined a future for herself separate from what her parents have planned. In another realistic touch, one of the immediate questions Prerna has for Jessica after she discovers her age (30), is why she isn’t married. In her world, being unwed at 30 is unthinkable, perhaps the sign of a serious, invisible disability?
Another poignant moment is when Prerna’s mother, who secretly sympathizes with her daughter’s skateboarding adventures despite her husband’s fury, asks her daughter, “What do you feel when you are on the board? Why is it so special?”
Prerna replies, “I feel as if it is mine, something I can do all by myself where there are no rules and no one to control me. I feel like I’m gliding in the sky.” In those simple words, one can glimpse lifetimes of repressed womanhood, particularly in small Indian villages.
The movie rides on the backs of excellent performances by Rachel Gupta and Shafin Patel and by the originality and energy of the visuals— raucous village kids skating down narrow dusty lanes, crashing into tiny tea shops and crusty, shouting elders. Gupta and Patel are lovable and inhabit their roles so completely that one is hooked to watching even though, after the first half-hour, there are as many clichés littering the scenes as there are skateboards. The sheer enthusiasm the band of local children recruited as actors brings to the movie is infectious.
Manjari Makijany, who directed the movie and co-authored the script with her sister Vinati Makijany, had a skating park built in the village in Rajasthan where the movie was filmed, and it remains as a gift to the children of the village. However, I feel I want to know more about whether any lives were genuinely changed by the arrival of the film crew, the filming, and their whole novel skateboarding-as-a-metaphor-for-freedom concept in this backwater, tucked away in Rajasthan. I would suggest Ms. Makijany do a follow-up documentary so that we know that the park didn’t just become another misplaced monument dedicated to dog poop and stray cows.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.