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Margarita With A Straw: Beyond labels

A lovely film that is not weighed down by the tricky issues it explores

Indulekha Aravind 

Kalki Koechlin is Laila, rebellious college-goer bound physically to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy

There are so many things to steer clear of when you are making a film with a protagonist who has cerebral palsy. You cannot afford to be preachy because the audience will walk out and tell their friends not to bother watching it. You cannot pretend it does not matter and ignore it altogether because, well, that would defeat the purpose of the film itself. And you should not romanticise or exoticise it, possibly the biggest sin. Shonali Bose carries off this fine balancing act with finesse in Margarita With A Straw, a lovely film which she has directed and written with Nilesh Maniyar.

Kalki Koechlin is Laila, the rebellious college-goer bound physically to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, but not in spirit. She writes music, fends off ribbing from her younger brother about boyfriends and is also exploring her own sexuality. She is not afraid to make the first move, more subtly than Paro in Dev D, whose image of carrying a rolled up mat out to the fields purposefully is indelibly etched in our minds, but it is no less powerful for that. But Laila’s mother (Revathy) or “Ai”, who take care of her and has bigger dreams for her, convinces her father to let her go study at New York University.

For Laila, New York is a different world that allows her to find her feet and herself. She meets Khanum, half-Pakistani, half-Bangladeshi and visually impaired, who nudges her to explore the city, and her sexuality. Khanum makes her realise she is bisexual and Laila has to decide whether and how to tell her mother. Khanum is confident Ai will handle it, Laila less so. Then there are other distractions, like the cute, blonde boy in her class, and complications.

Rather than one overarching story, Margarita With A Straw is many smaller stories, told with a light touch. Yes, the film is about living with cerebral palsy, but it is also about the relationship between a mother, who finds it hard to let go, and an angsty adolescent who wants to be allowed to live life on her terms, something we can all identify with. It’s about infatuations and heart-breaks in college, and overcoming challenges, whether it is successfully making an egg after several failed attempts or drinking a margarita, with a straw. And it is about exploring your body and sexual identity without any moral judgement.

The film is supposed to be inspired by Bose’s cousin who has cerebral palsy and who, when asked what she wanted for her 40th birthday, replied that she wanted to have sex. Considering we hardly talk about sex openly in our films, acknowledging that people with disabilities, too, have sexual needs might be something of a landmark in commercial Indian cinema. Bose has said she was also influenced by the death of her son before he was 17, and the deeply personal nature of her experiences can be sensed in the process.

The casting is excellent, from Koechlin, who plays the role of Laila convincingly, and Revathy, as the mother to the smaller characters, such as Laila’s little brother. There are lovely little touches throughout the film, such as the light-hearted sparring between Laila’s parents, or even Revathy’s costumes, whether it was the cotton salwar-kameezes with matching dupatta or the shapeless kaftans, which are so typical. The only quibble I might have is with the ending, which is a bit trite, but not so much that it spoils the rest of the film.

In one of the scenes in the film, Laila’s college band wins a music contest, only to be told by the principal that they had to give it to them because their music was written by someone with a disability — Koechlin responds with chutzpah. Similarly, the filmmakers of Margarita With A Straw can take a bow, not for making a good film about a person with a disability, but for making a lovely film.

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First Published: Sat, April 18 2015. 00:26 IST