When Asha Gond first saw the trailer of the new Netflix film Skater Girl in May, she felt a strange sense of deja vu. The nearly three-minute teaser, with almost a million views, showed a young tribal girl from an Indian village who is a skateboarding champion.
“I was surprised that the trailer has a very similar story to mine,” Gond told VICE World News.
Skater Girl, directed by Indian filmmaker Manjari Makijany, was on the ‘Top 10’ on Netflix, soon after its release on June 11. It did not carry any credits to Gond.
The 21-year-old Indian skateboarding legend claimed that Skater Girl borrows heavily from her life and her largely tribal village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
“After I watched the film, I wrote an email to the filmmakers asking why they didn’t credit us. People like me worked so hard to bring societal change,” she said. “They never replied, and now nothing can be done.”
An official spokesperson from Skatepark Films, a production company founded by Makijany, told VICE World News that the film captures the experiences of many skaters. “Being authentic and inclusive to the skateboarding community, in India and around the world, was paramount in telling this story and required an extensive amount of research over many years and across countries,” read their statement facilitated through Netflix.
Gond added that the film falls short of capturing their experiences with caste and gender discrimination.
Gond’s village, Janwaar, became famous in 2016 when German activist Ulrike Reinhard introduced a skating rink that helped turn almost all kids and teens from the village into skateboarders. The rink helped break patriarchal norms as girls like Gond joined in, and it broke centuries-old Hindu caste practices that prevented Gond’s caste from playing with other kids.
Janwaar’s popularity grew with Gond’s fame. She competed at international and national championships and was the first in her village to travel outside India.
The film, Gond said, made her feel bad, even angry. “So much of our life inspired the film but we didn't get any credit,” she said. “We don’t need money. It would have been nice if people knew who the story is really based on.”
Gond said the filmmakers reached out to her a few years ago. “The film’s director came to Janwaar and spent time with us. We didn’t know they were shooting a film,” she said, adding that she and some of her neighbors participated in their acting workshop.
“I remember being asked at one workshop about what I do when I’m dejected. I told them, I sit by a lake,” Gond said. “That’s in the movie.”
In a statement shared with VICE World News, Reinhard, the activist, said that she was brought on board as a “research consultant” in 2017, but she cancelled the contract later on. “I didn’t like their way of communicating and couldn’t agree on their way forward,” she wrote. She also claimed she got an email from the film crew stating, “The Janwaar kids were only good enough for supporting characters.”
Gond said that the last time the film crew reached out to her was in 2019. “One guy told us that the story of the film will be based on us, and they want us in it but only in the background towards the end,” she said. “We refused. If they want to use our story, why should we be in the background?”
Reinhard also added that the film’s British-Indian character “Jessica” appears to be based on her. Unlike Gond, Reinhard’s name does appear in the credits of Skater Girl along with Janwaar Castle, the skating rink in Gond’s village.
The Skatepark Films spokesperson didn’t respond specifically to this allegation, but, in their statement, they reiterated that the film is authentic, featuring real skaters. “[It] features skaters from across India including Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Kovalam, Goa, Janwaar and more than 30 local Rajasthani skaters, most of whom come from underrepresented communities," the statement said.
Makijany and her crew installed a new skating rink for the film, which continues to be used by kids in Khempur village, where the film was shot. Khempur is about 300 miles from Janwaar, with similar demographics and size.
While the film garnered positive reviews, some have questioned whether the film erases indigenous identity by not crediting Gond and Janwaar.
In the long run, the film will be a “good thing” for issues like caste and gender discrimination, Reinhard told VICE World News. “It helps our work.”
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