If You See One Film on Video this Year, Make It this One

Kalki Koechlin, star of Margarita with a Straw. Courtesy of Wolfe Video.
Kalki Koechlin, star of Margarita with a Straw. Courtesy of Wolfe Video.

We have an extremely limited view of young people born with disabilities. We use the word “obstacles” a lot with them: “Look at the brave young disabled person overcoming obstacles.”

But we don’t often think of them as just being people. Going through all the same personal trials as everyone else. Growing up. Getting an education. Screwing up and doing stupid things they later regret.

And we never ever want to think of them as sexual beings. Having the pangs of first love. Learning how to flirt and use sexual power. Figuring out their sexual orientation and gender identity. Figuring out how to have sex in bodies that don’t fit together the way they’re supposed to in the anatomy textbooks.

That’s why the film Margarita with a Straw is both a revolution and a revelation. It breaks new ground in the portrayal of disabled people by showing nothing more remarkable than the coming of age and sexual awakening of a young woman with cerebral palsy.

After winning some of the top awards in India and wowing festival audiences around the world, it will be coming out on video in the U.S. today, June 14th.

Margarita with a Straw writer-director Shonali Bose.
Margarita with a Straw writer-director Shonali Bose.

I had a chance to speak with writer and director Shonali Bose about the film, and I’ll work her comments into my review of the film. There are a few spoilers here, but they shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the film.

At the beginning of the film we see the main character, Laila (Kalki Koechlin) and her family (mother, father, bratty teenage brother) riding in a beat-up VW bus through the mad traffic of Delhi. The bus, driven by the mother (Revathy) is outfitted with an elevator in back to get Laila’s electric wheelchair in and out. The family members are silent, lost in their own thought. But they seem comfortable in each others’ presence. The outfitted van seems to show the care they have for Laila—a family that has worked fiercely to give her every opportunity to develop fully as a person.

The van tells us something about the family, but so does their religion. The mother is Hindu and the father (Kuljeet Singh) is Sikh. And although the differences are sometimes joked about in the film, the idea of a mixed marriage, in which the wife does not adopt the practice of the husband, is still a somewhat progressive idea in modern-day India.

Richard Lindsay: Was I correct in intuiting is that the mother in this film is Hindu and the father is Sikh? So this is an interfaith marriage?

Shonali Bose: An interreligious marriage, yes. It is a slightly more progressive family. I feel that’s how these two are. I’d like to imply that for anybody would pick that up that this is the kind of people these two are that they fell in love across religions.

Richard Lindsay: I thought that it didn’t seem like a somewhat more progressive family in the role that the father plays. He’s not a patriarch, in a sense.

Shonali Bose: Absolutely, yes.

Richard Lindsay: The mother is very much in charge. She directs the finances and she seems very much at the center of what this family does.

Shonali Bose: Yes she’s literally in the driver seat.

Richard Lindsay: Oh yes, of course.

MWS family dinner
Who’s in charge here. Laila with her interreligious family. Courtesy of Wolfe Video.

Laila is a student at the University of Delhi. Early on, we see Laila flirting with one of her university friends who is also in a wheelchair, then luring him into the library for a brief makeout session. She soon falls for another guy, a popular musician in the school who digs the lyrics she writes for him, but doesn’t dig her—well, not in that way.

Laila is embarrassed by getting shot down by the musician, so she jumps at the opportunity to leave for a semester abroad at New York University. Although her mother goes with her, Laila soon finds her relationship options opened even further. She meets a handsome British student, Jared (William Mosely, yes, that William Mosely) who is supposed to help her with her typing. (She can type just fine, but she wants to get to know him better.)

We get a sense of Laila testing her sexual boundaries. How far can she go in attracting others? Guys of different races, and ethnicities? Can she get someone interested who’s not also disabled? Like a lot of young people, she seems to treat the possibility of sex as a game. But underneath is also a kind of uncertainty—a desire to define herself in terms of who she can attract.

One day when out exploring the city, Laila rolls into a protest at Union Square. As she gets caught up in the action of the protest, the police spray tear gas. She rides to the rescue of a girl who has been gassed and the two of them escape on her wheelchair. The girl is named Khanum, (Sayani Gupta) a fierce, confident, blind Pakistani girl. The two begin to hang out, and Laila discovers what it’s like to be the pursued, not the pursuer in a relationship. She and Khanum fall in love. Here Laila begins to see the possibility that sex means something more—the deepening of a bond between two lovers.

Bose says that when she told her producers that Laila was evolving as a bisexual/lesbian character, it had a somewhat strong effect on the studio:

Shonali Bose: They were like, “Disabled and gay? Are you kidding?” We lost half the money when I made the character bisexual. She was not always bisexual. She was a straight girl and she was trying to have relationships with men. And Khanum was always in the script as an inspirational character, so in touch with herself, in her own skin, both with her sexuality and her disability. So we created that kind of mentor character within the film. So she was just her friend and it wasn’t that they had a relationship but as the film was going along (I myself am bisexual and out) somehow as the scripts were developing I decided to make that change with Laila. I was like, “Listen, I trust Indian audiences, that the film will be received well.”

Love at first touch. Kalki Koechlin as Laila (L) and Sayani Gupta as Khanum (right). Courtesy of Wolfe Video.
Love at first touch. Kalki Koechlin as Laila (L) and Sayani Gupta as Khanum (R). Courtesy of Wolfe Video.

The film has been received well, particularly Kalki Koechlin, who received a National Film Award, India’s highest cinema honor, for her portrayal of Laila. The role took tremendous dedication for Koechlin, who is not disabled. It took six months of coaching and rehearsal for her to prepare for the role, including working with Bose’s sister, who has cerebral palsy. I mentioned to Bose that Koechlin just lights up the screen.

Shonali Bose: Yes because of the hard work put in. If you compare any of her films, prior or post, this level of performance doesn’t exist. It’s a luminous performance but that’s coming out of the work that I made her commit to do and that she wanted to do. I saw the talent and she had the look I wanted but it was the commitment. I think because she rose to that challenge and poured herself into that hard work and that commitment. It’s the combination of that work and talent. Also giving her the right tools, creating the right workshops for her to find that within herself, which I knew she had.

As the film continues, Laila returns to India, and Khanum comes to stay with Laila’s family. The family sees Khanum as a friend, but does not see how the love between the two women has blossomed. Complicating issues is that before they left New York, Laila had an afternoon fling with Jared, her British “typist,” an experience she immediately regrets. How will she tell her girlfriend? Into the midst of complicated mix of feelings, Laila decides to come out to her mother.

There’s a priceless scene in which she tells her mother that she’s “bi,” which her mother misinterprets as the Hindi word “bai,” or “maid.” Her mother begins lecturing her that no matter how accomplished a woman becomes, she may always feel like she’s “bai.” This sends Laila into giggles.

Later that night, she explains that Khanum is her girlfriend. Her mother’s response is “chhee,” an expression of disgust. Laila, with the help of a talking iPad she picked up in America which can help her compose her thoughts and express them clearly, objects when he mother says her relationship is not “normal.”

Shonali Bose: Laila calls her out and says you’re a hypocrite. When people said, “I’m not normal,” you fought against them. And now you think [my relationship] is not normal. That immediately makes people think, it forces you to look at your own hypocrisy, right?

Eventually, Laila’s mother begins to come around. After being hospitalized for a brain tumor, she expresses quiet approval of her daughter’s relationship when Laila visits her in the hospital, just by asking about her girlfriend.

Shonali Bose: And then she comes around. But she comes around in a subtle way, not in an overt way. But she comes around by asking Laila, “How’s Khanum?” That is the blessing and that’s when Laila just goes to pieces crying. She says “How’s Khanum?” and that is the way that she’s blessing her. She says, “I think you should go back to New York,” which is her way of saying that is the way you’ll be able to carry on your relationship and be there.

I asked Bose what effect the film was having in India on the discussion of LGBTQ rights and acceptance.

Shonali Bose: Surprisingly it has just been accepted hugely. A lot of gay people took their families to watch the film and they came out to them after. Literally about 10 people wrote to me on Facebook and told me that happened. And then I also did some special screenings and spoke with young gay people and they said even if they had already come out that it was really wonderful in their extended family the conversation that this film provided.

At the very first screening of the film ever at the world premiere in Toronto an elderly Indian couple came up to me. They were just howling [crying] and they waited until everybody left and they said, “Our daughter came out to us as a lesbian six months ago and we didn’t know how to deal with it. We didn’t stop speaking to her but the relationship is so strained and we’re going to rush home and call her now and thank you for the film.” That’s kind of been the reaction amongst such families.

It opens up that space for anybody who’s in that situation or maybe their kids doing something different—it doesn’t have to be gay—but to come to terms with it and accept what their children are doing.

Although we are not sure how Laila’s relationship with Khanum comes out, the film ends with a beautiful gesture. Laila dresses herself up and puts on makeup, apparently going out on a date. She is dropped off at a restaurant and orders her favorite drink, a margarita. For a moment, we wonder if she has found another potential boyfriend or girlfriend. When the drink arrives, she asks to have it poured into a plastic mug, pulls out a looping crazy straw, and sips the margarita. It is then that we realize she’s on a date with herself. The meaning behind the title, “Margarita with a Straw.”

I asked Bose about the inspiration for the film. It ends with an epilogue that mentions the loss of her teenage son, and a quote from Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

Shonali Bose: I was the fact talking about this [film] during the summer of 2010 with my son—he was sixteen at the time. I told him, “I’m doing this [film] about your aunt. It’s not just a coming-of-age film. It’s going to be this voyage.”

I always talked to them about sexuality, I would tell them you can fall in love either with a girl or a boy from when they were really small with both my sons. So anyway I talked about sexuality for a bit with him, but I said it’s really about her coming into her own, she’s kind of looking for external affirmation…and then she comes into her own, and can go as a gorgeous goddess on a date with herself, and celebrate herself, and the relationship is then icing on the cake. So it’s really having yourself.

So I said at this late stage in my life I feel like I have finally found myself and I have me. So I’m calling the film “I Have Me” for now.

And he said, “Mama, I totally get it because I have me too.”

And that was so wonderful to hear that from my son and see it in his eyes. Such an evolved soul. About a month after that he died.

For four months I wasn’t even thinking about making a film. But in January four months after his death I was able to celebrate his birthday with utmost joy and peace. At the end of that day I started writing. [In my writing and directing process] I had immense clarity, that I could be so in touch with my feelings and have immense clarity. And that phenomenon I think that was from my son. This whole thing has been a gift from my son.

Margarita with a Straw is a film of incredible feeling, humor, and rare beauty. It is fearless filmmaking. Find it on Amazon or iTunes, or wherever you find video these days and see it. Give yourself that gift.