Margarita, With A Straw review: Kalki's outstanding in this moving film about being 'normal'
In her portrayal of Laila, Koechlin consistently hits the right notes, with plenty of mirth and grace.
By Tanul Thakur
Shonali Bose’s latest, Margarita, With A Straw, revolves around Laila (Kalki Koechlin), who is afflicted with a debilitating disorder: cerebral palsy. She moves in a wheelchair, speaks with great difficulty and relies on her mother for basic chores, such as taking a shower, combing her hair and putting on clothes. However, for nearly half of its runtime, the words “cerebral palsy” aren’t uttered and we are not told why Laila is in a wheelchair. Because as far as Margarita, With A Straw is concerned, Laila is not a patient. She is her own woman, falling in and out of love, rejecting and being rejected, coming to terms with her desires.
The film quickly endears us to Laila and her world because Bose and Koechlin understand the importance of detail and venerate the unspoken. Take, for instance, an early scene in the film, in which Laila has to be carried up the stairs in college. The helpers carry Laila as if she’s inanimate luggage, talking to themselves and not acknowledging her presence. All the while, Laila doesn’t utter a word, her discomfort evident in the way she stares unseeingly at the stairs.
With a little banal chatter and a lot of silence, Bose gets to the heart of Laila’s conundrum: no matter how normal she may aspire to be, she can’t avoid humiliation, be it explicit or implied.
It’s quite clear that Bose, through Koechlin’s Laila, is interested in exploring the definition of normalcy. Laila stands out from the crowd — both because of her disorder and sexual orientation — but should she be judged on things she didn’t choose? If you are maladjusted and yet content, do you still remain, for the lack of a better word, ‘abnormal’?
Bose is, of course, neither the first nor the only filmmaker to explore this theme. The unlikely bond between Laila and a fellow college student, the blind Khanum (Sayani Gupta), echoes in parts the 1964 film, Dosti. Both the relationships, though markedly different, have one partner complementing the bodily limitation of the other, showing how companionships can offset hurdles, even those that are physical. Familiar as they may be, the questions posited by Bose are not banal — they highlight how as a society, we keep finding new ways, and reasons, to exclude people.
In a deft writing stroke, Bose shifts Margarita, With A Straw’s action to America after the first 25 minutes (Laila enrolls in New York University to pursue a career in the arts). Conventionally, this would signal a new plot point, resulting in a turnaround in Laila’s life. However, Bose’s film is smarter than that. Laila’s life does change for the better in New York, but this is only temporary. Once she returns to India, she’s forced to confront a barrage of unsettling events, some of which are intricately tied to her stay in America.
The challenges Laila faces have less to do with her medical condition and more to do with who she is: a confused young woman who is still figuring out what she wants out of life. In her portrayal of Laila, Koechlin consistently hits the right notes, with plenty of mirth and grace. Laila doesn’t always make the right decisions, but Bose doesn’t treat her preferentially just because she’s battling a permanent disorder. Most scenes in Margarita, With A Straw unfold with a spirit that’s ubiquitous to modern life: hesitancy commingling with humour, desire with shame, self-pity with self-defence.
Yet, even with all this going for it, Margarita, With A Straw falls short of being a powerful, reflective film. Even though Bose painstakingly crafts scenes imbued with sobering epiphanies and profound observations, she shies away from taking them to their satisfying conclusions. Repeatedly, she cuts to the next scene a little too soon, like when Laila and Khanum fight on a Delhi rooftop. This keeps the audience from engaging with the film's themes and their emotional impact. As a result, many moments appear curiously unfulfilled: throbbing with searing intensity, yet frustratingly incomplete.
Bose’s decision to not hold scenes is especially puzzling because on many occasions in Margarita, With A Straw, she gives her characters the time to establish their own rhythm. For example, in the scenes where Laila is being bathed by her mother (Revathy), their casual conversation establishes both characters with subtlety. The dining table conversations in Laila's home appear to be trivial banter, but they serve the purpose of drawing the audience closer to this family and making us care for them.
Still, the most notable triumph of Margarita, With a Straw is that it keeps asking disconcerting questions of its characters and us, without spelling out the answers. A good film respects its audience. A better film respects its audience as well as its characters. Margarita, With A Straw, for most part, is a better film.
The writer is a Delhi-based film critic.
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