Rachel Sanchita Gupta in Skater Girl, streaming on Netflix from June 11
Skater Girl, billed as India’s first film on skateboarding, is the debut feature film effort of Los Angeles-based Indian film-maker Manjari Makijany. In Skater Girl (that streams on Netflix from June 11), Manjari — who co-wrote the film with her sister Vinati — tells the story of a teenaged girl in rural Rajasthan who breaks the shackles of patriarchy to embrace her passion for skateboarding.
Manjari, who has directed several award-winning short films, has also been an assistant director in Bollywood as well as on huge Hollywood films, working with the likes of Christopher Nolan on Dunkirk and The Dark Knight Rises and Patty Jenkins in Wonder Woman. After Skater Girl, she’s moved on to directing Spin, Disney Channel’s first India-centred film based on a young female DJ.
Over a late-evening Zoom call from the US, Manjari — whose father was the late Hindi film actor MacMohan — chatted with The Telegraph on the genesis of Skater Girl, the journey of making the film and being her dad’s daughter.
Manjari Makijany with film-maker Christopher Nolan
You aren’t new to the world of film-making, but having a debut feature film releasing is always special. What are the emotions like as we approach June 11?
I am definitely excited that something that we have been working on for four years is now going to be released to the world. But I am also doing post-production work on my second feature (Spin) and that takes up a lot of my time. It’s a good space to be in… to be busy with another project while one is releasing.
What was the genesis of Skater Girl? It’s an unconventional subject to attempt for a debut film…
That’s exactly what attracted me to it… it’s so unconventional, it’s a story about skateboarding in India. There are several skate communities in India that are thriving. And when I stumbled upon a lovely video of skateboarding in India, it led to a whole journalistic research that made me discover these skate communities in India which are doing some amazing work with children and the locals. There’s a skate park in Madhya Pradesh, there’s one in Kovalam, in Bangalore, in Delhi, in Hampi…. So we got in touch with all these communities just to understand what skateboarding was doing for India. That was super fascinating because not even in my wildest dreams had I imagined that skateboarding was such a big trend in India. That was the tip of the iceberg that got us excited and we decided we wanted to tell a story. And here we are… we are releasing India’s first skateboarding film (smiles).
I am really hoping that through this film people recognise and realise that skateboarding is actually thriving in India and I hope they discover these skate communities and the wonderful work they are doing. In the process of shooting this film (at Khempur in Rajasthan), we also built Rajasthan’s first skate park. I hope this film makes the sport more popular in India.
You have blended a sports film, a shero story, a coming-of-age drama and a takedown of patriarchy in Skater Girl. What were the biggest challenges of bringing such diverse threads together, first in the writing and then in shooting it?
In writing this story, the biggest challenge was to be very authentic. We did extensive research across India and met several skaters. We met hundreds of girls in the Rajasthan community to get inspiration for Prerna’s (played by Rachel Sanchita Gupta) character. We wanted to tell an authentic story, both from a skateboarding point of view and from the point of view of Prerna’s journey.
We also wanted to keep the story relatable. We had skate consultants who helped us understand the tricks of the sport, stuff like how much time does it take to land, how to get an early right…. We connected with skaters in India and the US. Vinati (Manjari’s sister) and I wrote the story, but we are not skaters, but we wanted to show the world what the sport is doing for India. We were like, ‘We have to unravel it, we have to be true to the skate community and to the journey of a teenaged girl in rural India’. It’s a local story, but we had to make sure it had a universal appeal.
The other challenge was our decision of building a skate park in rural Rajasthan in practically the middle of nowhere. We had incredible build partners called 100 Ramps who put together an international team and built a skate park in 45 days for the film. And once this skate park was made, the challenge was to train all the kids who were going to be part of the movie in skating. It’s said that art mimics life and we were actually basing our entire story on this skate park that we were making, and as we were going along, things were finding their way into the script.
Of course, filming has its own challenges. We were shooting in this remote place, and it was almost 50°C on some days. And then you have children and skateboards and you have stunts to do… it was quite an ambitious project overall, and some of the challenges that came up I didn’t anticipate at all, but one has to be a quick thinker when you are the captain of the ship.
What was it like co-writing the film with your sister Vinati? Were you two, pun intended, always on the same page?
(Laughs) We were on the same page, sometimes quite literally, because we would be working on the final draft and sharing screens and be typing away. A lot of thought, imagination and research went into writing this script… it took us a year to write it. Working with my sister was one of the best things. When we were in Jai Hind College (in Mumbai) together, we would write plays, we would do radio shows together. We have a shorthand and that organically translated in writing and shooting this film.
Directing Waheeda Rehman must have been special…
Oh my god, it was incredible! We were trying to get Waheedaji to say ‘yes’ to this and the journey to get her was tough. Till the day we were flying out to Rajasthan for the prep, we hadn’t cast for the role of the queen. We were hell-bent on having her play it. Somehow, Vinati got her direct number and messaged her and she said, ‘Okay, come next week’. And we were like, ‘We can’t come next week. We are flying out today’. And she asked, ‘But why are you approaching me at the last minute?!’ We said we had been trying to get in touch with her through her manager and she said, ‘Wait a second, I don’t have a manager!’ (Laughs) She told us to meet her there and then and we went to her place in literally 10 minutes! We told her about the concept and she simply said, ‘I am on board!’ She just elevated the material and played the role of the queen so eloquently.
Going back a little, did you always want to be a film-maker?
Yeah, very early on I knew I wanted to be a director, even before I knew what directors actually do. I would dissect scenes in my head and my curiosity leads to a huge part of me being a storyteller.
You’ve been an assistant director in Bollywood as well as on some huge Hollywood films. What was your biggest learning there?
Every project one is a part of, whether as an intern or an assistant director, somehow subliminally work their way into you, and so do your own life experiences. Being on these sets was like being a sponge. All my learning was done by pure observation. I have, of course, incorporated a lot of the learnings very subconsciously into my craft. I also have the duality of working both in the Hindi film industry and in the industry in LA and that fuses naturally into my work.
Manjari is the daughter of the late actor MacMohan, most famous as Sambha in Sholay
Being the daughter of actor MacMohan, what was your childhood like?
We lived a very protected life. I didn’t even know that my dad was famous until an open house happened in school where somebody came running to me and screamed, ‘Oh your dad comes on TV!’ And I was like, ‘Ya! Doesn’t your dad?!’ (Laughs) So we had no idea… we thought everyone’s dad acted! We would obviously discuss art and music and movies and would go to the movies. The real magic for us unfolded on stage because dad would also do theatre. We were never on set, our journey into that world was more through watching movies and plays.