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Skater Girl movie review: Feel-good but half-cooked cinema that tiptoes around caste

·8 min read

Language: Hindi with English

Skater Girl opens on a joyous scene. A thin, shabbily attired girl, her face awash with laughter, races through narrow and wide streets, pulling behind her a happy little boy crouched on a rudimentary skateboard. The two squeal with delight as they whiz past houses, fields and people until they reach the gates of a school.

Then the mood changes. Prerna €" that's her name €" stops to drop off the boy, her brother Ankush, and her smile fades as he enters while she remains outside. Clearly, she would like to study too, but we learn that her conservative, impoverished father wants her instead to do housework and supplement the family income. Circumstances soon compel him to send Prerna back to school. Around the same time, a half-Indian, London-based ad professional called Jessica arrives in their village, Khempur, having recently discovered that her roots lie in this place situated 45 km away from Udaipur.

Jessica and a friend end up introducing the children of Khempur to sophisticated skateboards. Skater Girl is about the magical effect of this turn of events on Prerna.

Rachel Saanchita Gupta and Amy Maghera in a still from Skater Girl
Rachel Saanchita Gupta and Amy Maghera in a still from Skater Girl

Rachel Saanchita Gupta (left) and Amy Maghera in a still from Skater Girl

Manjari Makijany's Skater Girl sets out to be a feel-good tale of a poor girl who battles adverse socio-economic conditions to pursue her dreams. The script comes armed with a good-intentions-conquer-all mindset in a charming package that includes the charismatic Rachel Saanchita Gupta as Prerna, the likeability of Amy Maghera as Jessica and an adorable Shafin Patel as Ankush. The remaining Indian actors come across as real people enacting their lived experiences. Maghera (a.k.a. Amrit Maghera in an earlier avatar on Indian TV) has an endearing chemistry with Gupta. And Waheeda Rahman in a cameo as the Maharani is a wonderfully dignified presence on screen. (Aside: the director and her co-writer Vinati Makijany are the daughters of actor Mac Mohan, ever-memorable to India as Sholay's Samba.)

The against-all-odds plus journey-of-self-discovery (Jessica's) plus coming-of-age (Prerna's) drama falls way short of its potential though, since it lacks focus and clarity, and in the matter of caste, presents a half-truth.

What Skater Girl gets right are the inner workings of Prerna's family. A mother and children terrified of a despotic patriarch; a debt-ridden man who sees a daughter as a burdensome responsibility, an extra pair of hands for work and nothing more; a fond mother who is resigned to her fate as a woman and imagines no option for her girl; a lower-caste father who fears the outcome of his child's nascent friendship with an upper-caste boy €" all these make for a credible scenario in that home.

But in an India where Dalits face violence from upper castes for actions ranging from growing a moustache to eating in the presence of high castes or riding a horse, where Dalit women face routine sexual violence and where marrying an upper caste could mean possible death for a Dalit, Skater Girl steers clear of upper-caste atrocities and opts to focus on the enemy within an exploited caste. The result is an incomplete film.

The upper castes in Khempur are a benign lot. The worst that one of them does is admonish his son for mingling with people not of the same status. The sole student in Prerna's school shown to be kind to her is upper caste. The local Maharani is benevolent, compassionate and instrumental in Jessica managing to carry forward a crucial project for the kids. Prerna does point to segregated spaces and drinking water pumps in the village, but we do not get to see any of the ugly aggression to which upper castes subject lower castes in reality. When a young Dalit spends hours at a fair with a Brahmin, the only belligerent response to their rendezvous comes from the Dalit's parent €" not a single Brahmin in the village is seen raising an eyebrow.

As if this balancing act is not enough, when Jessica asks Prerna if people still follow the caste system, her response is an under-statement: "Koi kehta nahin hai, par maante sab hai (Nobody speaks about it, but it is the unsaid norm)." Really? "Koi kehta nahin hai" in a remote village though even in cities Dalits face discrimination?

When a schoolteacher orders Prerna to do menial work as punishment for a misstep, it is not made clear whether this penalty would have been meted out to an errant upper-caste student (unlikely in the real world). Adding to the ambiguity is the fact that this teacher was responsible for Prerna resuming school when her father stood in her way. One character in passing laments the fact that skateboarding has led to kids mixing with those they would not have earlier hung out with, but that is not the overriding issue. The overriding issue at all times in Skater Girl, the gigantic hurdle before the Dalit heroine every step of the way, is her Dalit father.

This is not to suggest at all that patriarchy within marginalised communities should not be portrayed in cinema, but that discussing it without a simultaneous spotlight on upper-caste oppression is unfair, unjust and plain wrong.

Hindi cinema has been wary of caste since the 1990s, but in recent years a trickle of films such as Masaan, Article 15 and Pareeksha have gone all guns blazing into this seemingly forbidden territory. Neeraj Ghaywan's short in the four-film anthology Ajeeb Daastaans is an example from 2021 of a Hindi film handling the interlinkages between caste and gender with sensitivity. Skater Girl does not scrub caste out of its setting in the way contemporary Hindi films usually do, but it plays it safe.

This superficial treatment of caste and intersectionality is accompanied by a defused depiction of most elements in the script. The children become passionate about skateboarding in the blink of an eye, so as a viewer I did not get to warm up to the sport with them. Jessica's fight to build a skating park is too quickly won. The training of the children other than Prerna is largely dispensed with in a few-minutes-long passage overlaid with a song in which a bunch of outsiders, including foreigners, arrive in Khempur to coach them and leave as the music ends, so the rigour and challenges are not effectively conveyed. Even the skateboarding scenes are not shot as strikingly as you might anticipate from this heady sport's potential for great visuals.

We are expected to consider the locals unreasonable for objecting to the youngsters' new preoccupation, but hear this: their opposition is not to girls growing wings nor is inter-caste interaction their primary concern. The adults object, as any reasonable person might, when kids on skateboards begin crashing into people and things, and bunk school en masse. So when Jessica's friend Erick gravely declares, "Doesn't matter where you go in the world, everybody hates skateboards", the statement has no weight because though he is trying to project skateboarding as a symbol of rebellion, the film itself has only established its nuisance value until then.

Skater Girl draws on real-life stories of skateboarding entering rural India in the past decade including (though not credited here) the saga of Ulrike Reinhard, a German lady who reportedly got skateboarding to the Madhya Pradesh village Janwaar €" the film's "no school, no skateboarding" sign is definitely taken from Janwaar.

Text running on screen at the end of Skater Girl informs us that a skating park "was constructed in 45 days for this film. It now runs as a community skatepark where girls are encouraged to dream." These words mirror the film's incessant effort to position itself as a champion of girls' rights in Khempur, but the impact of this claim is diluted by the fact that no villager other than Prerna's father is shown curbing a daughter.

Too much is skimmed over, and the team of Skater Girl lacks the political acuity to note the problematic symbolism in the image of a white man €" one of the story's nice guys €" telling a Dalit Indian to buzz off, with an arm raised in a gesture of dismissal as Erick does in a scene in which Prerna's Dad confronts Jessica at the skating park.

A moment of fleeting self-awareness soon after somewhat redeems the film, when Jessica tells Erick, "Maybe he's right. I mean, do I really know what's best for them (the children)?" following that up with, "I am an outsider. Maybe I should just stop interfering in their lives." By then though, Skater Girl is already bordering on a white saviour complex though Jessica is a legitimate white ally. (Yes I have not forgotten, she is half Indian, but "white" here is a political term signifying Erick's race and the perception of Jessica's race among Khempurites.)

Makijany's film strikes a chord though when it repeatedly underlines the existence of female solidarity, defying the social tendency to stereotype women as perennial enemies of other women. Through the Maharani, it also reminds us that patriarchy suffocates women across classes. And it is spot-on with its warmth in scenes in which Jessica and Prerna bond, and when Jessica recounts her father's origin story to Erick.

It would take a lot more though to overshadow a scattered narrative style and a failure to dig deep into India's disturbing caste practices. In the end then, Skater Girl is feel-good but half-cooked cinema.

Rating: 2.5 (out of 5 stars)

Skater Girl is now streaming on Netflix

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