NEWS
17/10/2019 2:06 PM IST | Updated 20/10/2019 9:25 AM IST

How 9-Year-Old Skateboarder Kamali Became The Star Of An Oscar-Contender Short

When Kamali first started skateboarding in Mahabalipuram, people warned her mother that the sport would affect her marriage prospects.

When Kamali Moorthy was first gifted a skateboard by a friend of her uncle’s at the age of 4, she would simply sit on the board and let it roll down the sloping road that runs by the front of her house to the beach in Mahabalipuram where fishing boats sit silently on the sands. Five years later, things are a little different. A Bangalore-based skating collective, Holystoked, has since built a mini-skate park in the space adjoining the community centre across from her house. When I went to see her, Kamali flew across the ramp with speed and panache, turning deftly and looping round and round, till she casually leapt off the skateboard just as it careened out of control. I asked her if she was scared, but she just laughed, picked up her board and went for another go.

Kamali has gathered her fair share of fans for her skating skills, both within India and abroad – skateboarding legend Tony Hawk famously shared a photo of Kamali on her board three years ago to widespread delight – but it’s been a long journey for the 9-year-old skateboarder and her mother, Suganthi Moorthy, who has been a champion for her sporting dreams.

When Kamali first started skateboarding, people warned Suganthi that the sport would affect her marriage prospects. “They kept asking me, what will happen if she falls down and gets hurt? This was their biggest concern then. Who will marry her? Even today, someone asked me this,” she said. “Does getting married mean that her life will be fine?”

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It isn’t an idle question. A few years ago, Suganthi left an abusive marriage but not before being pushed to the brink of suicide. Her life has been far from easy and Suganthi wants something more for her daughter and her son, Harish. Perhaps the risk of falling off a skateboard isn’t such a strange way to achieve that. In her 2016 TEDx talk, Atita Verghese, described as India’s first female pro-skater, put it beautifully, “When falling is a normal process, then so becomes getting back up. The more you push yourself, the more you fall, the more you pick yourself up.”

Kamali and Suganthi’s lives have most recently entered the spotlight as the focus of Kamali, a 24-minute documentary by New Zealand director Sasha Rainbow, which is being distributed by RYOT Films in partnership with HuffPost. Shot in 2017, the film has been doing the festival circuit over the last year, picking up accolades and awards across the globe. Winning the Best Documentary Short at the Atlanta Film Festival has qualified it for the Oscars shortlist, meaning that there is a chance that Kamali’s story could make it all the way to the 2020 Academy Awards. While this is a big deal for Kamali and her family, for the meantime, life carries on as usual.

Every morning, before it gets too hot, Suganthi carries plastic stools, boxes of water bottles, limes, soft drinks, and club soda from her house to the spot on the beach where she sets up her lime soda stall. It takes multiple trips and the route cuts across the sandy beach, up a rocky slope, and skirts around the iron fence of the Mahabalipuram temple compound that attracts droves of tourists to this part of the world. Recently, she’s started rigging up a couple of poles and tarp for some shade. “Right now, nobody’s fighting. But soon the sea will come all the way in and we’ll all be squeezed together in the remaining beach. Then we’ll start fighting,” Suganthi laughed. Before she started this stall six years ago, she went door-to-door, selling fish.

For the last ten days, she hasn’t been able to work because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping that was organised in Mahabalipuram, having been warned not to set up the stall due to the heightened security. None of the vendors on this strip of the beach have official licenses and live precarious lives under the constant threat of eviction. Their income, tied to fickle tourists, is uncertain. As she sat at her stall on the beach, another vendor called out asking if she had change for a 500-rupee note. “We haven’t even done that much business today!” she shouted back.

Kamali spends most of her day at school, leaving in the morning and coming home only at 4 pm. Then, she skates for a while and goes for tuition at 5 pm. She likes English and Math but the other subjects not so much. She surfs as well on the weekends, keeping an eye out for rocks, and staying far from the rough side of the beach. But when it comes to skating, she’s fearless, despite having fallen and broken an arm once. “After a month, it only hurt a little,” she smiled. 

Facebook/Kamali

Kamali is still the only female skateboarder in the town. Suganthi says that while some girls from her school come to use the ramp when they have holidays, it is only for a short time, when their parents allow them. “If they fall, they start crying loudly and their parents come wailing and take them away and they say they’ll never come again,” she said. “It will change. Slowly, slowly, it will change.” Initially, there would also be trouble with the boys who would come to skate. “Sometimes, there will be twenty boys and Kamali will be alone. They won’t even let her take a turn. If it’s like that, she comes and tells me that she’ll just go later. So she usually waits for when no one is there and then skates.”

Skateboarding skews male in India. When Kamali first attended Jugaad, a national skateboard competition in Bangalore last year, she was one of only eight girls who participated. This meant that while the boys were sorted into age categories, all the girls had to compete in the same category regardless of how old they were. One of the girls had to sneak away without telling her parents so she could attend.

Given skating’s nascent reputation in India, it’s not surprising that Kamali’s reputation was global before it ever became local. In 2016, Áine Edwards, an Irish expatriate living in Mahabalipuram, who mentors Kamali and has become a close friend of the family had a chance meeting with Jamie Thomas, founder of Zero Skateboards, an American skateboard and clothing brand, while he was passing through Mahabalipuram. Thomas spent some time with Kamali, teaching her tricks and taking pictures. It was one of those photos, an arresting image of Kamali in a white frock riding her board, that went viral after coming to the attention of Tony Hawk, undoubtedly the single most recognisable name in skateboarding history.

Despite all of this attention, Kamali only recently got a board that was built for someone of her size. With the help of people like Warren RM Stuart of the Asian Skateboarding Federation, Edwards was able to reach out to a California-based skateboarding company that sent her a customised skateboard for free. Suddenly, Kamali was able to go so much faster than she had been able to with her old adult board. “Once you get a board like this, there is no going back,” Edwards said.

Currently, Kamali is gearing up for the next edition of Jugaad in December. Her excitement is palpable. “I want to go one day early,” she said. “And this time we have to stay for the prizes.” But she has her sights set higher, saying she wants to go to the Olympics some day. “How do you get there from here?” asked Edwards. “It won’t happen on a park like this,” she said.

The family is hopeful that the international attention garnered by the film might grow Kamali’s network of well-wishers and grant her access to the coaching and equipment that she would need to achieve her dreams. At the moment, with the stall as her only source of income, Suganthi often struggles to pay her children’s school fees. “If we put them in a government school, it would be easy. But it is my one small desire that they get a good education,” she said. “Me and my brother didn’t get an education. That’s why we want Kamali and Harish to study.”

Through it all, Suganthi remains hopeful. She vividly remembers the feeling of watching the film in Mumbai with Kamali and Edwards. “I was sitting in the back and I was crying,” she said. “For the other movies, everyone was just sitting quietly and watching. They didn’t clap or do anything. But when Kamali ended, everyone started clapping. That was the first time I felt success.”

The author is a Chennai-based freelancer.

‘Kamali’ is being distributed by RYOT Films in partnership with HuffPost, and will be exclusively released on HuffPost India on 20 October.