Manjari Makijany is Los Angeles-based writer, director, and producer with diverse film experience in India and the United States. Her journey as a director took off with her critically acclaimed short film “The Last Marble,” which won Best of Fest at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, followed by “The Corner Table and “I See You,” which won Best Short at the Asian American International Film Festival and was showcased in Cannes at the Emerging Filmmakers Showcase. She went on to become one of eight directors selected for the prestigious American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women Program (AFI DWW) and the second Indian woman to be part of the program since its inception in 1974. Makijany’s second feature, “Spin,” a live-action Disney film that follows an Indian-American teen who follows her passion of creating music infused with her South Asian culture, will be released later this year. Along with her husband and partner Emmanuel Pappas, she heads the boutique production company Skatepark Films.
“Skater Girl” is now streaming on Netflix.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
MM: “Skater Girl” is a coming-of-age story about confidence, courage, and the profound impact of blazing your own trail.
Set in a remote village in Rajasthan, India, the film follows Prerna, a local teen living a life bound by tradition and duty to her parents. But when London-bred advertising executive Jessica arrives in the village to learn more about her late father’s childhood, Prerna and the other local children are introduced to an exciting new adventure thanks to Jessica and her friend Erick who cruises into town on a skateboard.
The kids become infatuated with the sport, skating through the village, disrupting everything and everyone around them. Determined to empower and encourage their newfound passion, Jessica sets out on an uphill battle to build the kids their own skatepark, leaving Prerna with a difficult choice between conforming to society’s expectations of her or living out her dream of competing in the National Skateboarding Championship.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
MM: The rising skateboarding movement across India caught my attention. Since this film was not going to be a biopic, the story had to be authentic to the subculture yet universally relatable.
My sister, Vinati Makijany, co-wrote and produced the film. We did a deep dive researching skate communities in India and we were just fascinated by discovering how skateboarding was thriving in Madhya Pradesh, Kovalam, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, etc. Something like skateboarding was breaking through social and caste barriers, getting kids into education, and giving people an outlet for self-expression.
My interactions with skaters from across India — and particularly locals in Rajasthan along with the intense experiences of building Rajasthan’s first skatepark — became the inspiration for this film.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
MM: This film is India’s first film on skateboarding and I hope that it inspires people across the world and brings them hope and a fuzzy feeling in our current times.
I also hope it shines a light on all the amazing work the different skate communities in India are doing. Many people still don’t know skateboarding exists and is thriving in India.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
MM: Where do we start? Making an independent film in itself is a challenge and this was an ambitious one considering it involved a year of research, an extensive all India casting process, and building permanent concrete skatepark. Building in a remote village during the monsoons was a logistical nightmare!
Many kids were facing the camera and stepping on the skateboard for the first time, and there were more than 350 village locals who were involved in the making of this film. It took some time for them to get familiar with the process of filmmaking and skateboarding.
The film was shot through the summer of 2019 and it was tough on days when the temperature almost touched 45°C.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
MM: I knew fairly early on that I wanted to create stories to explore the complexity and simplicity of life and people around me. I love both the escapism and reality check that cinema offers.
I don’t have one particular experience that led to this decision, but I always gravitated towards theater and films and was curious to know what went behind the scenes to create the finished product. I’m a visual person, and my approach to filmmaking stems from my curiosity.
I often gravitate towards simple stories that have regular people in extraordinary situations. I believe local stories that are inspiring have a universal appeal and can transcend cultures and borders. There is something so resilient about the human spirit that when an underdog conquers against all odds we all want to celebrate that triumphant and gratifying emotion. I wanted to capture that essence in “Skater Girl.”
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
MM: My father who was an actor in the Hindi film industry often spoke to me about staying grounded. He never let success or failures get to him and he told me that people’s attitudes will change with your successes and failures, but you should always remember to be consistent.
The worst advice was given to me by someone on set while I was working as an assistant. She told me I was bossy and that if I wanted to climb the ladder and get more work as an assistant then I should make an effort to be liked by everyone on set. I remember telling her I can’t change my personality and neither was I interested in “climbing the ladder” that way. Sometimes we need to trust our instinct and know when not to listen to someone even if they may be more experienced than you as they have no clue about where you come from and where you want to get to.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
MM: I can say what worked for me — everyone’s path is different. I came up as an assistant director, made a short film got rejected from a bunch, got selected for a few, and then traveled to festivals with it. That joy to be able to finally say, “I’m a director” and interact with your audience directly was inexplicable.
We have to be patient because we will face more rejections than “yeses.” I’ve been applying to script labs consistently and keep getting rejected year after year, but I take that as a challenge and go back to my craft to finesse it. Sometimes it’s not even about what you are submitting or pitching — it’s just that it’s not in line with what they’re looking for that year.
Just hustling and getting something out there so people can see you and your work is something you have to proactively work upon, whether it’s labs, shorts, an indie feature or a prestigious program or workshop where the industry takes notice. We need something to get that leverage and our foot in the door.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
MM: I don’t have a favorite but there are two films that I loved in the past couple of years that that have been directed by women: Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang” and Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum.”
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
MM: I was filming my second feature in Toronto during the pandemic in 2020. It took some adjusting to be on set with masks, shields, and Boleros (NFL/Olympic style com tecs to communicate with crew on set) while following all protocols.
It had its own challenges but it was pale in comparison to what the world was going through. A lot of my friends and loved ones struggled during this time, and I realized nothing is more important than one’s health and the well being of your family. Nothing else takes priority.
W&H: The film industry has a long history ofunderrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
MM: Give more women and underrepresented people jobs in leadership positions! It’s a “risk” that pays off in more ways than one. Having unique and diverse voices is reflective of the world we live in. On “Skater Girl” we made a conscious decision to hire women in key roles. The director, writer, producer, production designer, key hair and make up, location sound mixer, and editor were all women. We qualified to display the ReFrame stamp in our end credits which serves as a mark of distinction for projects that have demonstrated gender-balanced hiring.
The great thing is that change has started and people in leadership positions are now making conscious decisions of being inclusive.