November Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 5 years ago

Shonali Bose gets right what could have gone horribly wrong. In Margarita with a Straw, the writer-director somewhat redeems Indian cinema in its depiction of disabled characters. The film, celebrating its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, closely followed by a European premiere at the London Film Festival, is inspired by the real-life story of Bose’s cousin Malini, a young woman with cerebral palsy, who overcame her challenges to win a scholarship and go to America to study writing.

From that plot description, alarm bells should have gone off. And rightly so. The last time a major Indian film on disabled characters was produced, we got Barfi. Rest assured, Margarita with a Straw stays clear of melodrama and over-the-top sequences. It’s a different film altogether, made with an international audience in mind. It’s an honest look at the sexual awakening of a young woman. That she happens to be wheelchair-bound is just one aspect of her identity.

Laila (Kalki Koechlin) lives with her family in Delhi, idling away her time with songwriting and attempts to hook up with boys. There’s a naughty streak in Laila, which is funny and refreshing to see. Her character comes out of a positive space, her story isn’t one of depression and sorrow. It’s clear from the onset that Laila is meant to be an actual person with actual feelings, not just a cardboard cutout of an idea of a person. Early on in the film, there’s a nifty little sequence at a music competition, where Laila’s team wins due to her disability. The jurors admire her but make the mistake of stating their biased reasons for selecting her as the winner. Instead of celebrating, Laila and her mates just call it all bullshit,  and shake their heads in disbelief, as if they were saying, ‘You can’t do this. This isn’t Bollywood!’

Soon, Laila gets a scholarship to go to the United States, to study creative writing at New York University. A whole new world opens up to her, geographically as well as sexually. It’s here that the young girl realises her true identity and what her life is all about. Not to give away anything else about the plot, the ending is one of the most charming narrative solutions to have come out this year, in any film. It’s endearing and heartwarming, in the most unsentimental way.

At the heart of Margarita with a Straw are three striking female performances. Kalki Koechlin has never been better. She hasn’t always had perfect performances — sometimes her dialogue delivery has been jarring, often she has simply been miscast. The problem with someone as talented as Kalki is that directors don’t seem to play to her strengths. Shonali Bose thankfully does. In this role, in this milieu, Kalki pitches in a note-perfect performance of incredible maturity. Revathy, playing the supporting mother, is a delight to watch. Again, have Indian filmmakers forgotten how to utilise their best? And finally, there’s Sayani Gupta, in a nuanced performance of blind Pakistani student Khanum, who becomes Laila’s lifeline in New York.

Margarita with a Straw shares similarities with another recent film, also playing at the LFF — Iranian-American writer-director Desirée Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour. Both films are funny, frank and unafraid, tackling their protagonists’ sexual identities in a manner that is, at least in the case of Indian cinema and Margarita with a Straw, very novel. Both films announce the arrival of their respective directors on the stage of world cinema in fine fashion. They deserve big releases.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue under the headline, “Rethinking Disability.”

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany