Manjari Makijany discusses genesis of debut feature Skater Girl, and learnings from father Mac Mohan

Manjari Makijany opens up on her feature debut Skater Girl, building a skate park in rural Rajasthan and learning the art of consistency from her father Mac Mohan.

Ragini Daliya June 13, 2021 12:01:05 IST
Manjari Makijany discusses genesis of debut feature Skater Girl, and learnings from father Mac Mohan

Emmanuel Pappas, Manjari Makijany, Alan Torres, Rachel Saanchita Gupta in a behind-the-scenes still of Skater Girl | Photo credits: Punit Reddy - Skatepark Films LLC

In the opening scene of Manjari Makijany's debut feature Skater Girl, a young teenage girl tugs on a purple rope attached to a makeshift skateboard made from a slab of wood and scrap metal wheels. She runs along a dusty road, laughing and looking back as her little brother sits on the board, encouraging his sister to pull the board faster.

Set in rural districts of Rajasthan, Skater Girl follows the life of 16-year-old Prena (Rachel Saanchita Gupta) who cannot afford a school uniform or her textbooks, and first encounters a skateboard through a visitor. The catalyst is Jessica (Amy Maghera), a British-Indian who is in the village on a personal quest. Moved by the enthusiasm of the village children to learn about skateboarding and keen on changing their lives, Jessica and friend Erick (Jonathan Readwin) decide to build a skate park and help kids foster their new passion.

However, a dream comes at a cost, and there are obstacles — a conventional family, doomed romance, and the pesky problem of children having to go to school.

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, has previously assisted filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins, and Vishal Bhardwaj. Her next feature Spin, Disney Channel’s first India-centred film based on a young female DJ, releases in August. She also has Skate Basti, a documentary feature about the making of the Desert Dolphins skatepark (the park built as a location for Skater Girl), and its impact on this village.

Over a Zoom call, Makijany sat with Firstpost to discuss the origin story of Skater Girl, her journey of making the film right from building a skatepark to meeting tons of Indian skater communities, and lastly, the most important learning from her father she has carried over the years.

Edited excerpts from the interview below:

Choosing a coming-of-age genre for a feature debut is often heard of, but a sports film, and to top it with skateboarding is a bit unusual, especially for Indian viewers. What is the origin story of Skater Girl?

Yes, it is fairly unusual to see skateboarding in India, and that’s exactly what attracted me to the concept. I had stumbled upon the skateboarding trend in India, and soon realised that it was thriving. And not just one community, but there are several in India, right from Madhya Pradesh, Kovalam, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Pune. So that really fascinated me, and moreover, it was doing so well.

Hence, I just wanted to know what the story would be like when you fuse it with a girl chasing her dreams because this sport is always associated with boys but there are so many good female skaters in Los Angeles, and also some amazing skater girls in India. Thus, we felt it will be really great to tell this story from a female perspective, especially from rural India. That’s how the journey started. So Vinati (her sister and co-writer of Skater Girl) and I took on this journalistic approach, spent time with skaters in both the US and India to understand what it is about skateboarding that makes one feel free.

Manjari Makijany discusses genesis of debut feature Skater Girl and learnings from father Mac Mohan

Rachel Saanchita Gupta in Skater Girl. Skatepark Films/Mac Productions

How much of the research, the building of a skate park for the film helped your writing process?

We took a year to write this story. As I said, we met a lot of skating communities, hundreds of rural girls from Rajasthan. We spent time trying to figure out their day to day routine to make sure we can be as authentic as possible. We just didn’t want to say that we will write a story about skateboarding and set it in rural India. We took our time, we travelled over a thousand kilometres in and around Rajasthan, with skateboards in our hands, asking girls to step on boards. It was a treat to see some of these girls sort of light up, for they were learning about the skateboard for the first time. We learnt about skating tricks, constantly questioned skaters for research so as to represent both sport and the state authentically. You know, while we were constructing the skate park, many incidents during the build, and especially while watching the local kids learn about skating, impacted our screenwriting process. In fact, the kids of the village where we shot our film used these makeshift boards in real life made out of scrap material, and that part too found its way into the script.

The part that stayed with me most was Jessica’s brush with India’s bureaucracy while constructing the skatepark, especially the sequence where the minister asks her, “Who is actually involved in this? Husband, father?” Did you ever go through something similar? How do you tackle such prejudices?

That line came from exactly what we went through, expect it wasn’t a minister. But a lot of people asked us who is the 'real' person they need to deal with. You know that typical dialogue, “Ghar pe koi bada hai? Unse baat karade hamari." And that exact line made its way into the script.

A lot of Jessica's struggle is inspired by what I and Vinati went through.

I think the only way to tackle this is to keep your goal in mind, and just constantly keep going for it. And that is what we did, we said "No, this is us, we are doing it, and aap ko humse he baat karni padegi." It was interesting but sometimes, we felt like an outsider like how Jessica did while trying to find her roots and her identity. That initial hesitation was always there, but we managed to overcome it.

Manjari Makijany discusses genesis of debut feature Skater Girl and learnings from father Mac Mohan

Manjari and Vinati Makijany wrote and produced Skater Girl together

Skater Girl does not shy away from calling out the practices of the caste system in India, taking down patriarchy and gender inequality. The film has various subtle references, for instance when Ankush is allowed to participate in the skateboarding competition, while Prena is grounded. How important do you think films play a role in challenging the current status quo?

You kind of answered the question beautifully. Films do play an important role. In Skater Girl, Ankush is allowed to skate, no one tells him anything. He does have all the freedom. And this very attitude clearly tells us the various distinctions we hold while bringing up our sons and daughters. Also, it was very important to showcase that gender bias, the caste system in a very non-judgmental way. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we set our story in rural India – to portray the ground reality because girls there face many odds in comparison to the city girls. How Prena breaks the convention even though she is conflicted between the traditions and pursuit of her dreams. It was necessary to incorporate that how a shift in perspective can help you achieve what you set your mind to.

Being the daughter of actor Mac Mohan, what have you picked up from him? What is the biggest learning you have carried with you throughout the years?

Honestly, we never accompanied our father so much on sets, and he never really sat us down ki baitho, aaj I will give you some advice. We learnt more by watching him in real life, unfazed by success and failures. Perhaps watching him stay consistent through all was a big lesson for me. And that is my biggest learning, you know, to understand that this industry has highs and lows, but one has to be consistent with who you are and with what you want to do. That really stayed with me.

Any advice you would like to give to the budding filmmakers who are aspiring to break into the scene?

It took me 13 years to get my feature debut so I would say ki bohot papad belne padte hai, you got to have a lot of patience. Be ready to put in the hard work, wherever it is required, there are no shortcuts. I think the biggest thing is to have the urge to go out there and create work even if its short films or submitting work to script labs or being part of workshops. Being actively busy and hustling. That is what has helped me. It wasn't like handed down or something. So yeah, I think to be patient. And it is so easy to make short films right now, literally for nothing, and submitting them to festivals.

Skater Girl is streaming on Netflix India.

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