Why Margarita, With A Straw could have been the best film of the year, and why it isn't

Mihir Fadnavis

April 21, 2015 18:08:34 IST

It’s never been an easy path for films that talk about issues like disability. They either veer towards misguided sentimentality or turn out to be downright manipulative fluff. Even worse, sometimes the films defeat the very point of showcasing the plight of the differently-abled by unwittingly insulting them. Disability has seldom been understood sensitively by Indian filmmakers, and what’s obvious in their films is the lack of insight into the experience of being differently-abled. So even though their intentions are noble, the final product often turns out to be heavy-handed in its attempt to address a serious issue.

Often, the lack of cinematic skill is played by the director’s a ham-fisted endeavour to extract sympathy from audiences. There’s either a blaring song to wrench your guts or sobbing faces that hope to break the fourth wall. Even good films fall through this trapdoor. Take for example Taare Zameen Par — as good as it was, the film had both of those aforementioned elements.

Kalki Koechlin. Image courtesy: Facebook page of Margarita, With A Straw

Kalki Koechlin. Image courtesy: Facebook page of Margarita, With A Straw

Can you imagine Taare Zameen Par without the ‘Maa’ song? Would it have the same emotional heft? Probably not, because the song in the film does most of the work, while the direction and acting become secondary entities. The same holds true for the climax of the film – without ‘Tu Dhoop Hai’, the ‘triumph’ at the end would not have the same emotional punch.

The need for a film to be commercially viable in India further reduces its quality and drives filmmakers to pander to lower common denominators, instead of focusing on delivering a heartfelt story that feels genuine in both intention and execution.

Against this backdrop, Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw had a lot of ground to cover and obstacles to avoid. She and the film succeeded beautifully, but only halfway.

Right from the opening scene, it becomes clear that Margarita, With A Straw is a very different film from what we’ve seen in India so far. Laila (Kalki Koechlin) is in a Matador van, driven by her mother (Revathy) and accompanied by her dad (Kuljeet Singh) and kid brother. The dad starts singing and the brother makes a side-splitting, sarcastic joke.

It’s like a scene out of Little Miss Sunshine. Only Laila, a college girl with cerebral palsy, is on a wheelchair. She slurs while talking, but is a fantastic lyricist for her college’s rock band. She also has a crush on the lead singer, and has no idea how to let him know she likes him. After all, why would the most popular guy on campus date a girl in a wheelchair?

It’s the perfect recipe for emotional manipulation or kitsch. But director Bose is such a talent that there’s not an ounce of manipulation or kitsch to be found here. Every scene is executed with solid craft — there are long takes, silences, and not a shred of background music.

Add to that Koechlin’s terrific central performance, and you can’t take your eyes off the screen. You don’t see Koechlin pretending to be a disabled person; you see the able-bodied actress completely disappear into a character with whom you fall in love. There are no easy aids here; no helpful background music and no montages. Every tick and slur in Laila’s body is carefully calibrated, and clearly, both Koechlin and Bose have done extensive research for Laila.

The attention to detailing and nuance extend beyond Laila too. There is sensitivity and authenticity in the way other people in the film converse with Laila, and with each other. There are bits of comedy that hit just the right notes, matching the pace and tone of the film.

Ambitiously, Margarita, With A Straw doesn’t stop at portraying Laila coming into her own while surrounded by ‘normal’ people and the challenges the differently-abled face. The film approaches the uncomfortable topic of sexual mores and it’s made all the more provocative because the subject is still a girl in a wheelchair.

Laila watches porn, uses a friend to assuage her frustration and even has sex with a woman. Exploring a woman’s sexuality in an Indian film is taboo, so going this far in a Hindi film feels like a triumph. Bose explores the scenario with tremendous maturity and grace. Through Laila, the film renders a few unsettling questions – how fair is it for a disabled person to be a burden to her caretakers? Is it possible for a disabled person to be in a relationship with a ‘normal’ human being?

When Laila enters a relationship with Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a beautiful young woman who is blind, the film reaches its peak and asks some dreaded questions. Are both these women in a relationship with each other because men don’t find them attractive or desirable? Is Laila heterosexual forced to be in a homosexual relationship due to her disability? Can disability only be accepted by disability? Is it ok for Laila to explore her sexuality by sleeping with a man once, to make sure she’s a lesbian? How would the conservative parents of a disabled Indian girl feel if they know their daughter is a lesbian? Acceptance of disability in society is problematic in itself, but a disabled lesbian daughter feels like too much of a cross to bear.

Until this point, which is ten minutes after the interval, Margarita, With A Straw is the best film of the year because it has explored so much with such a rare combination of boldness and sensitivity. Call it what you will — the curse of the second half? — but it all goes downhill from here.

A scene pops up in which Laila’s mother is shown losing her hair, and it single handedly derails the film. After this glorious, powerful beginning, Bose fails to figure out a proper resolution to the numerous and heavy duty conflicts at hand. So, she adds one more to the story - Laila’s mother has terminal cancer.

Instead of dealing with Laila’s disability, her queer identity, her confusion about her sexuality, her infidelity, cancer and death take centrestage. None of it adds up, and the film teeters towards melodrama. It succumbs to doing exactly what it had avoided previously — become maudlin. And so, we have a scene at Laila’s mother’s funeral, where melancholy and high-strung sentimentality is forced upon us when a CD of Laila’s mother singing is played.

A great deal of the second half is spent in ruing Laila’s mother’s death, yet that character had not been developed enough in the first half to make us care about her to this extent. The one we do know, Laila’s girlfriend Khanum, disappears from the movie without any resolution, as does the man with whom Laila had sex. Subplots are are left dangling and Margarita, With A Straw unfortunately becomes a less skilfully-made Blue is the Warmest Color with disability and cancer.

To add the final nail in the coffin, the film ends with a truly ridiculous and trite message about the need to love oneself, followed by an overused Rumi quote. It’s frustrating beyond belief. It’s also shocking that the film has been through a script lab, and no one pointed out the gaffes in the script, considering they are so basic and so glaring.

It doesn’t matter if a film is rubbish to begin and ends with a whimper. However, when a film that shows as great promise as Margarita, With A Straw did, to see it unravel as it does is an infinitely exasperating experience. Ultimately, Margarita, With A Straw falls into the same traps that so many films about differently-abled people have in the past. And that’s a shame because it began with such clear-sighted grace. Clearly, even a deeply personal story and the filmmaking talent to execute it may not be not enough to resolve conflicts and deliver a satisfying story.

Updated Date: Apr 21, 2015 18:08 PM