The writer-director speaks about her debut feature, casting legendary actress Waheeda Rehman and constructing a skatepark in Rajasthan.
Wanted to write an original story that was relatable universally, says Manjari Makijany on Skater Girl
Mumbai - 15 Jun 2021 14:55 IST
A young village girl discovers new avenues when she begins to learn skateboarding in Manjari Makijany’s debut feature Skater Girl (2021) which released on Netflix on 11 June.
Based in Los Angeles, Manjari has directed acclaimed short films such as I See You, The Corner Table starring Tom Alter, and The Last Marble. Besides her own production company in the US, Skatepark Films, Manjar and her sister Vinati, who is an actress, oversee Mac Productions, the banner created by their actor father, Mohan Makijany, better known by his screen name, Mac Mohan.
This year, she introduces Skater Girl and Spin, a Disney Channel original film, both revolving around young female protagonists in a coming-of-age tale. We reached out to Manjari by e-mail ahead of the film’s release to find out more about the making of the film, the casting of the lead Prerna and building that massive skatepark in a village in Rajasthan.
Is there any particular reason you chose to set the story of Skater Girl in the world of skateboarding? Were you inspired by any real-life events?
The rising skateboarding movement across India caught my attention and I was fascinated by how something like skateboarding was thriving and creating a positive social impact in places like Janwaar, Kovalam, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore.
How long did you and your sister Vinati work on the project?
I wanted to be authentic to the subculture yet write an original story that was relatable universally. My sister [the co-writer and producer] and I did a deep dive researching skate communities in India. We also interacted with many girls in rural Rajasthan to capture their reality through Prerna’s character. Vinati and I spent over a year writing the script of Skater Girl. Plus we went through an intense process of building Rajasthan’s first skatepark and many incidents from then found their way into the script. For example, Khempur’s local kids actually had makeshift skateboards they had made from scrap material called bearing gaadis.
Was the film always going to be a coming-of-age tale from Prerna's perspective?
How was Rachel Sanchita Gupta cast as Prerna? Did she know how to skate beforehand?
Prerna had to have a striking personality and embody a certain depth where even if she didn't say anything, her eyes would need to convey her emotions. Rachel went through a rigorous audition process and before bagging the role of Prerna she had to be part of an intensive artist residency programme. She was selected after we saw more than thousands of teenage girls across India. Neither of our leads and supporting cast knew how to skateboard. They were all trained in skateboarding for months on end before we began the shoot. Rachel worked very hard and not only did she have to train in skateboarding but she also had to also spend time with the local girls from Khempur to incorporate subtle nuances of how they carried themselves.
How about the rest of the children in the cast? Were they skateboarders?
The leads and the supporting cast, mostly local Khempur kids, were trained in skateboarding for over five months. There’s a scene in the film where there’s a national competition and for that, we actually opened up the casting to include existing skaters from skate communities across India. We have skaters from Kovalam, Pune, Janwaar, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. It was a fun experience to be able to have Indian skaters be part of the country’s first skateboarding film in some way while a whole other bunch of new children also got introduced to the sport through the film.
Their journey with skateboarding continues to this day and just recently four local kids from Khempur who never skated before represented Rajasthan in the national championship! Usually, it’s the other way round but in this case, it’s been an exciting journey to see a film inspire real-life events.
How did you and your team go about making your own skatepark in Rajasthan for the film?
Initially, we hadn’t planned on making a skatepark but it dawned on me that if we were making a film on skateboarding and the social impact it can have on a community, why don’t we consider building a skatepark rather than either making something makeshift or shooting at an existing skatepark. I remember when I told Emmanuel [Pappas] and Vinati, the producers, about this idea, they were silent for a moment but thought it was a great decision. It was an ambitious decision as we were a small indie film but we took it as a challenge and personal commitment. So we got in touch with Make Life Skate Life, which has built several skateparks around the world in rural communities.
They connected us to Abhishek from Holystoked Collective and Darius Bharucha from 100 Ramps, a skatepark construction company in India, which became our build team and assembled a local and an international build crew. It was not an easy undertaking to build an international-level skatepark where eventually kids could train for championships. We went through a lot of what Jessica does in the film. At first, the village found it hard to understand why we were doing this but they were happy to be employed on the project. Building in a remote village during the monsoons was a logistical nightmare! However, despite construction delays thanks to monsoon rains, the 14,500-square-foot skatepark was built in 45 days.
How did Waheeda Rehman get cast for a part in the film?
We were trying to get in touch with Waheedaji for a long time. When we finally connected with her, it was the day we were leaving for Rajasthan. When we met her we told her the concept of the film and the role we wanted to offer her, within 10 minutes of hearing the pitch she said a loud resounding ‘Yes!’. She was emotionally moved and said she had to be a part of this project. I was thrilled because I had no plan B in mind and wanted her to play the role of the Queen. It was a real honour to direct her and have her in my debut feature.
Later this year, your film with Disney, Spin, featuring an Indian-American teenager as the lead, will also be premiered. How did that project come about and how was it like shooting during the pandemic?
Spin happened before we even sold Skater Girl to Netflix. I consider myself fortunate to be able to do my second film so fast. My agent sent me a bunch of scripts to read and I resonated with Spin instantly and wanted to be the one to tell that story. It’s about a relatable Indian-American teen, Rhea, whose journey of self-discovery empowers her to find her true love — creating and producing beat-driven music infused with her South Asian culture. It took some adjusting to be on set with masks, shields and Boleros [wireless intercom devices] while following all protocols. We had to follow very strict guidelines to ensure everyone’s safety. It had its own challenges but it was nothing in comparison to what the world was going through.
What other projects are you hoping to produce?
We have a slate of projects we are developing for 2022 under Skatepark Films in Los Angeles along with Vinati who is spearheading Mac Productions in India. Currently, we’re working on Skate Basti (Skate Village), a documentary that follows the journey of local kids in Khempur, Rajasthan after being introduced to skateboarding at the Desert Dolphin Skatepark and we’re also developing an animation series for children with Green Gold Animation. It’s an exciting time for us.