Margarita With A Straw (2015)
Cast: Kalki Koechlin, Revathi, Sayani Gupta and Kuljeet Singh
Director: Shonali Bose
Synopsis: A young woman with cerebral palsy, who is a student at Delhi University and an aspiring writer, leaves her home in India to study creative writing in New York. Living in Manhattan, she falls in love and embarks on a journey of sexual discovery and the self.
Review: Margarita With A Straw is a wonderful, liberating and empowering film in its portrayal of disability, sexuality and queerness. In the Indian context, where the audience is used to view disability with either disgust or sympathy, it is an achievement to portray it with humour and wit, thus making the audience laugh as well as ‘normalising’ it without over-simplifying it.
The movie begins with a very pleasant scene; the mother (Revathy) is driving around the family in an old van and first drops off her husband (Kuljeet) to work and then her daughter Laila (Kalki) to college. The very first scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It is unafraid to break the patriarchal notions of a family, in showing a woman as the head of the family. From the mother taking the last call to showing the father cry, from not discriminating between their children (a disabled girl child as opposed to an able-bodied son) to showing an inter-religious marriage of the parents, one can say that the movie is feminist in many ways.
It chooses to speak about the challenges of cerebral palsy with optimism instead of apologising for it. The only scene where Laila feels uncomfortable is when she has to be carried up the stairs because the college elevator is not working. This goes on to show that people with disabilities can work and function independently without being seen as a burden, given they are provided with proper infrastructure and access. The ease with which she roams the streets in New York as opposed to in her city where she needs to be dropped off only affirms the above mentioned. Also to be noted is the attitude of the people towards her, where at one place her music band is given the first place because the lyrics were written by a ‘disabled woman’ to where she beats everyone at chess and is praised for her intelligence and not sympathised.
However, it is not a film about disability alone. It also handles intimacy without any romantic illusions, in the sense that it demonstrates how ‘normal’ desire is, even for the disabled. It subtly touches upon masturbation and desire of a woman with disability. The fact that her sexual urges and relationships aren’t sensationalised is what ultimately stands out. The movie’s aim is not to make the audience strain themselves into sympathising with Laila. It is about giving her the space to grow and spread her wings. She is a young independent woman who doesn’t hesitate in buying a vibrator at a local sex shop, making out with her close friend to ‘try it out’ or while professing her love to another. She is flirtatious, fun and confident. The film is sensitive to Laila as a woman and her sexual desires and not Laila as a sexless disabled person.
Laila’s engrossment with sex is neither depraved nor undersexed. Her relationship with Khanum (Sayani) is rather sensual and they both share a deep emotional bond of being viewed as ‘abnormal’ due to their disability and to some extent also their sexuality. Laila’s coming out to her mother, “aai, main bi ban gayi hun” and her mother’s response, “main bhi bai hi hun” are the most humorous and political statements in Hindi mainstream cinema.
However, the subplot was somewhat disappointing and derailed from the main theme of the film. It would have been so nice if Aai had lived and the mother-daughter duo had engaged in more discussions on ‘normality’. My only beef with Margarita With A Straw is that I cried during the movie.
Margarita With A Straw is a coming of age tale and breaks all boundaries of heteronormativity, patriarchy and the ‘normal’. It is a lovely tale of love and miraculously made it past the censor board (I still can’t believe it!)