Margarita With A Straw review: Kalki Koechlin is brilliant in this heartfelt yet flawed movie

Deepanjana Pal

Apr,17 2015 08:15:02 IST

In a modest apartment in Delhi, there lives a girl named Laila who has a loving family, goes to college, and in her free time, dreams of orgasms. Her heart belongs to the lead singer of the college band. When he makes it clear to her that he doesn't like like her, she's devastated. Fortunately, the universe has something for Laila to make up for the pain of heartbreak: a scholarship to study at New York University. In New York, she scores an excellent discount on an iPad, flirts, watches porn, gets jiggy with pretty much everyone she's attracted to — it seems if Laila asks, the universe will indeed make sure she receives.

If Laila was a svelte, sprightly and sexy young woman, then this could have been one of the sub-plots of any commercial film in any language. However, Laila has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound in Shonali Bose's Margarita, With A Straw.

There are two reasons to cheer for Margarita, With A Straw wholeheartedly: director Shonali Bose's intent and actor Kalki Koechlin's talent. Bose's decision to make a film on a character who isn't "normal" deserves all the praise she's got, because the emphasis is upon how Laila is very much a regular teenager, but for her impaired motor skills. The love scenes that could have been weird or coy are shot in a way that makes you feel tenderness towards the on-screen lovers. The film has had to suffer a few edits, but cheers to Bose and the CBFC -- a film with a lesbian romance has made it past censors and will be seen in theatres in a country where homosexuality is technically a criminal offence.

Courtesy: Margarita With A Straw.

Courtesy: Margarita With A Straw.

Koechlin's performance has been praised and talked about widely, and for good reason. Considering how rare it is to find a nuanced female character in Hindi cinema, it's not surprising Koechlin was eager to play Laila. The actress has done a good job of miming the physicality of someone with cerebral palsy, but what is truly remarkable is the lack of artifice in her expressions. Koechlin is fantastic at showing that combination of vulnerability, unsureness as well as mulish determination that is adolescence. Not for a moment does she seem false.

Unfortunately, these two qualities are not enough to make up for a simplistic script that is more intent upon reducing the audience to tears than telling a good story. Laila is the only real person in the film. Almost every other character is either a placeholder or like Laila's first girlfriend Khanum (Sayani Gupta), strangely plastic.

It's a sign of how ungainly the script is that an actress of Revathy's calibre struggles to make a character feel credible. Revathy plays Laila's mother and thanks to Koechlin and Revathy's acting, the strength of their relationship comes through despite the awkwardly-written scenes. Unfortunately, at the critical point when Revathy's character must make the choice between seeing Laila as a child who needs her and accepting Laila is her own person, Bose throws in a completely unnecessary doozy to remove Revathy from the narrative.

There's also the bewildering setup that life for the differently-abled is a piece of cake in the West. Had Bose chosen to focus upon how even unforgiving cities like New York keep wheelchairs in mind by showing ramps in buildings and on public transport, it would have been a pointed and pertinent argument about how inconsiderate Indian cities are. Our civic infrastructure not only neglects the differently-abled, but is positively dangerous for all those who aren't able-bodied. However, the way Bose shows New York, the city becomes a haven for Laila not because its urban planning includes the differently-abled, but because non-Indians look beyond disability. From the bus conductor to the cute stud in class, everyone in America treats Laila like a regular person while in India, no one can see beyond her crumpled body.

To accord this much open-mindedness to the West is a little generous, to put it mildly. Indian attitudes to disability are shameful and it's true that the same stigma doesn't present itself abroad, but that doesn't mean Americans — or even New Yorkers — don't stare, or that they're more tolerant about those with garbled speech, or that differently-abled aren't treated differently.

Then again, for all of its serious-cinema credentials, Margarita, With A Straw is not particularly rooted in realism. Laila is apparently a musical prodigy of sorts, but she appears to be studying Creative Writing (on a scholarship) at New York University. For a film that's supposed to be about curiosity and sex, it's a shame that Bose completely ignores how Laila and her lovers negotiate her physical issues and lack of muscular control. Margarita, With A Straw doesn't provide any inkling that aligning body parts can be delicate. Neither is there any hint that Laila's lovers are nervous about inadvertently hurting her, for instance, which you'd hope they would be. Sex in Margarita, With A Straw moves with the smoothness of a lovemaking scene in a Mills & Boon novel.

Although Margarita, With A Straw has many sweet and heartwarming moments, the film feels clumsy on the whole. Bose has packed too many issues into her script: being differently-abled, figuring out one's sexuality, queer relationships, sexual frustration, death. Each of these jostles for space with the next and Bose isn't able to weave all of them into the narrative. The script's notion of propelling the story forward is to tug at one heart string and then another, and it's to Koechlin's credit that this emotional manipulation doesn't feel exhausting.

However, the actress's performance, though praise-worthy, is uneven. Laila's posture and control over her hands improves noticeably as the film progresses. Sometimes, her head lolls and sometimes, it's perfectly-held. The girl who fell off a chair if she moved away from her back support is eventually seen sitting upright, without any support or a wheelchair in sight. The wrist and fingers that were initially curled awkwardly and struggled to obey her brain's commands are able to rub her mother's feet and even hold on to a bar of soap. In fact, the more Laila has sex, the more her motor skills improve. Who'd have thunk?

It's ironic that just when the story has her asserting her identity, Laila also starts looking less differently-abled than before. One of the central ideas of Margarita, With A Straw is that Laila may be limited by cerebral palsy, but she isn't constrained by it. She's able to be heard, become accomplished and be a complete person, because her body doesn't define her. And yet, the film undercuts this very idea by subtly yet noticeably improving Laila's physical condition just when the story has her blossoming.

Ultimately, Margarita With A Straw is a film with a lot of heart and a powerful performance from Koechlin, but you can't help feeling that Laila deserved better.

Updated Date: Apr 17, 2015 08:19 AM