Everyday life in a remote Rajasthan village is dull, idle and slow. A girl, Prerna (Rachel Sanchita Gupta), is not able to go to school because of the financial situation at home. When she does go, she is punished as she doesn’t have the proper uniform or books. She feels dejected, but accepts the situation.
One day, an unknown element enters the village and things begin to change. This person brings with her a new kind of sprit and sporting equipment – the skateboard – infusing the village kids with new kind of energy and upsetting the laidback dynamics of village life.
This is the central storyline of Skater Girl, directed and produced by Manjari Makijany.
Skater Girl is a ‘feel good’ film and has been drawing positive reviews for acting, direction and screenplay, and rightly so. But while appreciating the film, we must ask few questions: What purpose does the movie serve? Who will ‘feel good’ and be moved by the storyline? Individuals from which sections of society might get motivated to do something; and to do what?
Just like literature, cinema too is a reflection of society and play an important ideological function. Cinema can either question or legitimise and perpetuate the status quo. Despite of all its warmth and inspiration, Skater Girl does not challenge the status quo of gender, caste and class; it only tries to navigate through the oppressive structure without harming it in any way.
One of the chief protagonists of the movie is a Hindu woman born and brought up in London. In one sequence, Prerna finds Jessica (Amrit Maghera) sitting on a raised platform and asks her what she was doing in an upper caste locality. Jessica is amused by this question and asks, “Do people still follow the caste system?”
One can say that this amusement is justified or makes sense since she is from London and has never experienced any instance of caste-based discrimination. But is that really the case? Is the diasporic Hindu community oblivious to the realities of caste-based discrimination?
In 2017, several Hindu groups in Britain opposed the proposal for banning caste-based discrimination in the UK. Those groups even called the proposal a “hate campaign against Hindus”. Recently, the case of caste-based discrimination in Cisco and the Swami Narayan temple in the US shows that the Hindu upper-caste diasporic community not only know about caste practices but actively perpetrate them.
So, when Jessica is amused to know that Indians ‘still follow the caste system’, her amusement is a reflection not of her non-experience but of self-deception. This self-deception is widely prevalent among a significant section of the diasporic Indian upper-caste community. This is how the caste question has been treated and presented in the film by the makers. Caste for them, like for a large section of ‘urban upper-caste educated equality’ loving people, is wrong because it goes against the idea of ‘equality’. But this ‘equality’ does not means social justice but only equalisation; that too, only as a principle, which does not gets translated into action or behaviour.
Though there are frequent references to caste-based discrimination in the film, their only purpose is to appreciate the caste-blind and good-hearted (which she is) Jessica and by extension, of real individuals like her; and to perpetuate the ideology of neo-liberal capitalism by emphasising the success story of one individual against all odds without asking questions about why those ‘odds’ exist in the first place.
In the end, Prerna, through her perseverance, is able to beat the ‘odds’ of caste and gender discrimination, acute poverty, lack of books and school uniform and so on. But not on her own, or through any collective effort of her family or community, but only because of a chance benefactor.
There is a popular quote attributed to Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara which reads:
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Skater girl is about the first part of the quote. Apparently, Indian villages are full of potential scientists, sportspersons, educationists and musicians only waiting the entry of that one Jessica in their village who (along with benevolent rich and powerful patrons) out of their good heart and determination to “do something for the people” will provide them with adequate opportunities. No one in the film asks any such question.
This film might motivate a few well-meaning, good-hearted and resource rich people to do something for ‘the people’, but by doing so ‘the people’ are reduced to inactive agents while the outsider becomes the real agent of change; both objectively and subjectively.
Skater Girl is a good cinema. It keeps things real, does not engage in over-dramatisation and has a cathartic effect on the audience. It is a women-centric film in which all the lead characters are women. It should be appreciated for showing that through courage and determination, the possibility of overcoming the odds becomes real. But, while appreciating it, we must also acknowledge that somewhere or the other, this film forms a part of the ideological complex that does not recognise social-justice, it perpetuates individual success stories as a generalised narrative and holds the individual responsible for their fate.
We don’t know what happened to Prerna after she successfully showed her talents at skateboarding competition and won applauds. Was she married off or did she continue to pursue her dream? The filmmakers do not answer this.
If Prerna was to continue her flight, as symbolised through the skateboard, her father would have to call off her wedding – which is almost impossible in a traditional setting. In that, the film kept it real. Prerna could only have been able to pursue her journey if at least her father was part of her struggle, making it a collective fight against systemic oppression.
Harshvardhan is currently pursuing a PhD in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Featured image credit: Netflix