The film, directed by Manjari Makijani, is doing well globally. But, there are differing opinions about the inspiration for the film. Gaon Connection speaks to the filmmakers, skater Deepa Yadav, who is part of the film, and Asha Gond, the celebrated homegrown skating champ.
The film team did theatre workshops with many local children in Khempur, Rajasthan, many of whom faced the camera for the first time in their lives. Photo: Netflix
On the face of it, Skater Girl on Netflix is the deeply inspiring story of a girl from an area called Bhil Basti in Rajasthan who defies social constructs and deep-rooted patriarchy to do the one thing that gives her an exhilarating sense of freedom — skateboarding.
The film, directed by Manjari Makijany, and co-written and produced by her sister Vinati Makijany, stars Rachel Saanchita Gupta as Prerna, meaning inspiration, who has to fight at every stage of her life — to go to school, to skate, to not get married… Amy Maghera plays Jessica, the young woman from London who comes in search of her roots and ends up finding a new purpose in a village where caste, patriarchy, misogyny and child marriage rule.
The film team did theatre workshops with many local children in Khempur, Rajasthan, many of whom faced the camera for the first time in their lives. More than 350 local people were part of the film.
Skater Girl is your textbook feel-good film, with a rousing background score that makes your heart swell, eyes mist up, and leaves you with a big smile at the end of it all. It has a run-time of about one hour 50 minutes.
In real life, even as the film has been receiving accolades from across the globe, there have been murmurs that Skater Girl is actually based on the life of a tribal girl Asha Gond from Janwaar in Panna, Madhya Pradesh, and Ulrike Reinhard, a German national, who set up the Janwaar Castle skatepark there in March 2015 that changed lives. Reinhard and Asha have been vocal about this and have been posting on social media about how unfair it is that they were not credited in the film.
Twenty-year-old Asha was one of the first from her village to travel abroad. She represented the country in the 2018 World Skate Park World Championships at Nanjing, China. The children from Janwaar have won over 30 medals at the national and international levels. She told Gaon Connection that “skateboarding had changed her life”. She has mixed feelings about the film, though.
“I think this is Asha’s story, my story, and how I came into Janwaar. I had a contract with the filmmakers. There are way too many similarities even in small little details that it is hard to believe this is not our story,” Reinhard told Gaon Connection.
Speaking to Gaon Connection over a conference call, along with her sister Manjari, Vinati said this claim is baseless since this is not a biopic. “The film is about the impact of skateboarding and not based on any one person. It is inspired by the stories of hundreds of girls and skaters we met across India during our research,” she added.
The film, the Makijany sisters said, is inspired by the skateboarding movement in India and every effort has been made to tell an authentic, original story. Many international and Indian skaters feature in the movie and are celebrating a film on skateboarding, they added.
Speaking to Gaon Connection, which has written about her earlier, Asha Gond said she refused to be part of the film because she felt it was her story and that she was only being asked to be a part of the background in the last scene.
“If it’s my story, why should I be in the background? So, I opted out,” said Asha, who said she was sad and angry when she saw the film. “But, I’ve decided to move on. I meet different people in this small life of ours. I learn from everyone.”
Vinati, however, said Asha was “just one of many girls we interacted with on one occasion where she was part of a larger casting workshop we conducted for that village, all of which is documented. When she was offered a cameo to play herself (just like other skaters), she declined saying if it’s not their story, they do not want to be in the film” (sic).
Meanwhile, Reinhard admitted her name did figure in the list of ‘thank yous’ during the end credits. But she wants to see Asha credited too. She referred to two particular phrases, ‘No school, no skateboarding’ and ‘skating as a disruptive power’, as being her own philosophy. “They could not have known that had they not spoken to us,” she pointed out.
The film, incidentally, is set in Khempur (Udaipur) in Rajasthan, where the film’s team built the Desert Dolphin Skatepark and shot the film. It is about 770 kilometres from Asha’s village. Manjari said Reinhard was hired as a research consultant, along with other skate consultants from across the world. “We engaged these consultants to understand the sub-culture as filmmakers, because we were not skaters,” she explained.
“Ulrike is legally still under contract as a research consultant, and is aware of the scope of her work, which included facilitating casting workshops in Panna, and is spreading misinformation in spite of her saying she doesn’t want to associate with the film,” Manjari Makijany told Gaon Connection. To this, Reinhard said she exited the contract, as she did not like the way the filmmaker approached the film.
As for the end credits, the film team said that all those who entered into a contract find due mention in the end credits. “No contracts were cancelled and one cannot just ‘walk away’ from a contract. We have legal teams in the US and India and our paperwork is in compliance. This is a fictional film and it has resonated with so many people of all ages, across countries,” said Vinati.
“I think that legally they [filmmakers] are in the right, but morally in the wrong. They should have signed a contract with Asha and the other kids of Janwaar to tell their story – just like they did with me,” said Reinhard.
“This is yet another proof of how adivasis are treated. The filmmakers knew what they were doing, and they came, they learnt and they did not give credit,” Reinhard alleged.
In all this, said Vinati, mention must be made of Deepa Yadav, who is a skater from Janwaar and who is part of the film’s climax. “It is unfair in all this to not mention Deepa. She believes this is every girl’s story,” the co-writer added.
Speaking to Gaon Connection, 15-year-old Deepa said she was happy to be part of Skater Girl. She’s yet to watch the movie, because she does not have access to Netflix, but said she had signed a contract with the team and was paid for her time and work too. “When I heard the story and whatever I saw during shooting, I think this is the story of all girls who skate,” said Deepa, who still skates in Janwaar along with 20-25 girls.
Like the others, Deepa too picked up skating from Reinhard and other foreigners who initially taught the children. “They spoke to our parents and convinced them to let us skate,” said Deepa, who now practices on her own, and has won awards too.
Asked if they approached the film as the story of one girl Prerna, or as the sum total of many children’s achievements, the filmmakers said the film started with fascination for the skate scene in India. They said it became a very personal journey after they decided to construct a skatepark in Rajasthan for a rural community.
Many scenes were inspired by their own experiences making Rajasthan’s first skatepark and by the social impact they witnessed firsthand at the Desert Dolphin Skatepark in Khempur (the impact of skating is not just exclusive to Janwaar but across India and even in underprivileged communities in Afghanistan and Africa). The film, in fact, openly mentions the communities that have inspired us, said the filmmakers.
The film has done well on OTT. “It was number 1 in India for the opening week and in the top 10 in so many countries. After all these years [2017-2021] making the movie, it is refreshing to see people of all ages engage with the film, be it in Brazil, Oman, Bangladesh or Australia. Rajasthani women in their mid 40s have been telling me “this is my story too”. We celebrate this as storytellers as we were able to write something universally relatable yet something very specific about a subculture,” said Vinati.
As for Asha, she’s mostly put this behind her and is working hard on perfecting her game, in time for a possible championship in December.