Cinema: Dissolving boundaries and coming of age
The film obliterates the fine line between Us and Them when we talk about disabilities
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata
Growing up is difficult. You not only have to negotiate your way through the minefield of hormones and heartbreak, you also have to take responsibility. For your new-found freedom. For your actions. For becoming an adult. And when you are a 19-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, the journey is that much more difficult.
In Margarita with a Straw director Shonali Bose makes the journey compellingly interesting. In real life there is always a line between Us and Them when people talk about disabilities—physical or mental. Us, who can be explorers, adventurers, jetsetters, and Them, who can be none of these. We define them by their inability to do something, rather than their ability to do so much more. Margarita with a Straw is that rare sort of movie which makes us see Laila, the wheelchair-bound protagonist, as able to experiment and explore her world with a sense of freedom not seen earlier in Indian cinema.
In the first 10 minutes of Margarita with a Straw, you do concentrate on the wheelchair and not on Laila, and depend on the subtitles to tell the story rather than her slurred speech. But Laila (Kalki Koechlin) is too feisty, too spirited a protagonist to let us dwell on that and even though the wheelchair remains part of every frame in the film, it doesn’t become the main plot point.
Koechlin inhabits the character of Laila not only through the physical performance but also by evoking Laila’s inner world—ably capturing her heartbreaks, her rejection, her confidence, and her compassion. She fleshes out Laila as someone with whom we can empathise, who has a lot of love in her world as well as a lot of challenges. We cross continents and we cross inhibitions with her, and we let her joie de vivre take us on this
Margarita with a Straw also depicts female desire in a new way. Hindi movies have moved a long way from two roses serving proxy for a kiss, but female sexual fulfilment is still not thought about in most testosterone-led Hindi blockbusters. So it is pathbreaking in itself to show that a girl with cerebral palsy can not only experience desire but also act on it. To keep the audience invested in that love and desire is a more challenging task, and Bose undertakes it with dignity and grace. Here, for the first time, we see a young woman with an unusual way of moving and speaking going through all the usual experimentation with love and sex of any teenager, and it leaves her both liberated and confused, as happens at that age.
Through the character of Laila’s strong mother, Shubhangini, Margarita with a Straw also shows that letting go can be as important, and as difficult, as growing up. Shubhangini has little time left to teach her daughter and that’s why she has to let Laila navigate her way. The mother-daughter bond is natural, organic, and mostly comes across to the audience through quiet, everyday moments. The mother silently labelling food jars to stock in the fridge, or combing out Laila’s hair after the caregiver has tied it into a clumsy topknot are ways that only an Indian mother knows of showing affection. The role reversal in the second half, when the daughter must wash her fast-fading mother’s hair, is an unspoken comment on how childhood is giving way
The script navigates both Laila’s journey of self-discovery and her mother’s terminal cancer. But, while each plotline is interesting, the effort to weave them together makes the second half sluggish.
The idea is that Laila’s coming of age story is not just about exploring her sexual identity but also about becoming a responsible adult and taking responsibility for her actions. The combination works most of the time, but it falters when her relationships with her mother and with Khanum (Sayani Gupta), her blind Pakistani-Bangladeshi lover, come into conflict. The Khanum thread flounders as a sub-plot to the bigger picture, leaving the audience, like Laila, struggling to grasp too many things at once.
Despite these flaws, Margarita with a Straw is a potent cocktail of honesty, humour and heart. With its story of a strong female mind imprisoned in a not-so-strong body, as well as Laila’s unusual relationships, it provides a sensitive portrayal of disability without the self-pity and mawkishness we have come to expect on-screen. That, in turn, gives a hint of what Hindi cinema can become when it grows up, too.