A rebellious young woman with cerebral palsy leaves her home in India to study in New York, unexpectedly falls in love, and embarks on an exhilarating journey of self-discovery.
Rarely is it when subject matter such as the one in Bollywood Director Shonali Boses’ newest film Margarita With A Straw explored and received with such open arms by global audiences from India all the way to the United States. Films that come to mind that tip toe around the topic of sexuality with those that are disabled in some way seem to be usually misrepresented as a symbol of stigmatized taboo.
The disabled, LGBT community, those with HIV, and transgendered populations are but just a few examples of misrepresentation in the media. With the same idea, Dallas Buyers Club and Boys Don’t Cry, this movie presents a successful portrayal of an unspeakable topic that makes people feel confused or at odds with just how on earth disabled individuals are capable of being in an intimate relationship. Are they? Can they?
This film takes the protagonist Lyla played by one of Bollywood’s most talented actress Kalki Koechen on a beautiful journey of self discovery amidst her challenging cerebral palsy. The film, set in India, shows Lyla in her homeland before she moves to New York City to attend NYU and is thrust into an entirely unknown yet exciting world marked by sexual liberty and freedom with a blind woman named Khanum played by Sayani Gupta whom she falls in love with.
Interviewing Bollywood’s famed director and famous actress Bose and Koechlin before I set out to Bombay was a fascinating introduction for me. Here I am, in Berkeley, waiting to travel to India for the first time to work on a film with a very well known director who I had discovered at this years Sundance. The furthest I had ever traveled was the Czech Republic. Was I nervous? A little. Did I know anyone in India, let alone Bollywood? No. India’s robust, hyper-exclusive and impressive film industry was a mystery to me. But thankfully that shifted after I spoke with Bose and Koechlin who helped me gain a deeper understanding of Indian cinema.
Bose, a warm, friendly, humble, yet ambitious and assertive woman (you kind of need to possess those traits as a director in my opinion) should be praised for making such an important film. Her attitude yells: “I have a damn good story to tell and I’m gonna tell it!” The film as Bose puts it, “humanizes the LGBT community in South Asian countries such as India.” When asked what sparked her interest to tap into or jump head first into this sensitive and let’s be honest stigmatized reality for millions of people, she succinctly said, “You don’t want to see people with twisted bodies, or think about them in a sexual way. It’s not the ideal type. This subject (that of people with disabilities having sex) is rarely seen in film especially told with insight and humor.”
Shonali, a Bollywood/US director & screenwriter notably known for her internationally critically acclaimed & award winning film Amu talked about the fact that she had been wanting to make this film for years. With this film she hoped to break through the taboo forcing viewers to recognize that, YES people with disabilities just like people without, are sexual beings, capABLE of finding, keeping and making love. What’s extraordinary is Kalki, who does not have cerebal palsy, amazingly and surprisingly stayed in character off set during her day to day personal life…meaning in a wheelchair in her cerebral palsy mode.
Kalki shared with me as she reminisced about a very unique experience she had while shooting. Her, the director and various other principal cast and crew all lived in the same house during production. Off and on set throughout the whole process. Day in and day out. How inspiring right? She talked of times when they would sit around offering feedback and affirmations about one’s performance and times of reflections and growth as they persevered through production from start to finish witnessing the transformation of people such as Bose who has a personal connection to Margarita. “The topic was inspired by my own cousin Malini who is also disabled (cerebral palsy),” she said. Bose wrote the screenplay.
When talking with Kalki she excitedly began telling me the moment when Boses’ idea bloomed into the being stages of Margarita. One day Bose and her cousin were out at a pub in London celebrating Malinis’ 40th birthday. Bose asked her what exactly she wanted for her special day. Kalki said Malini yelled out, “I just want to have sex by the time I’m 40!” Albeit funny, this was a first for Bose who later realized that she had never thought about Malini as a sexual woman. Frurthermore, neither did society. Bose said she “realized that it was not just me but the media and society as a whole that characterized the disabled as asexual beings.” The seed was planted. Bose started developing the character for the film and during that process she came to the realization that at the core of it (for her) was the concept of self worth.
She recalls, “Looking at my own life I felt I had been constantly seeking external affirmation, love and companionship. I was talking to my 16-year-old son, my first born – Ishan, about this as we ate lunch together in a restaurant one day. I said – after so many years I finally – HAVE ME. I wasn’t sure if he would understand. But he looked into my eyes and said – I totally get what you mean. He smiled gently and confidently. I feel I have myself. And I could see it in his eyes. And I was so proud that he did. I laughed and said – well it took me over 40 years to discover what you already have. You’re so lucky. Three months after that lunch – my son died in a horrible accident caused by a malfunctioning electric razor.” Tragedy and misfortune is no stranger to Bose. Her take on it?
“When life hands you lemons you can be bitter and sour or you can make a yummy Margarita with them and raise a toast! That’s the essence of Margarita With A Straw.”
The film made me laugh, no doubt. Mainly because of Lylas’ challenges and the relentless rejection by able bodied folks who she was attracted to and her response to their indifference toward her. In a scene when Lyla comes clean about having a crush on a guy she went to school with at Delhi University only to be dismissed was a bit hard to watch. Thematically she was relentlessly rejected and/or put down by her disabled friend as well as others.
The awkwardness and vulnerability when she lets out her feelings is emotionally charged but the way she handles the rejection speaks volumes about how those like her have to deal with these issues every day. But never did I feel sorry for Lyla during the film. Her spirit simply wouldn’t allow for it. Empathy? Sure. Sympathy? No. Lyla, a fiercely funny and charismatic young college student captivated me without compromise. Her brave yet vulnerable spirit wouldn’t hold back or let rejection stop her; a trait that Bose instilled in her character masterfully and executed flawlessly by Koechli.
Currently playing in select US theaters, San Jose being one, the film was released in 2015 in India leaving audiences touched and enlightened by this delicate yet determined young woman who will not, under any circumstance, allow life’s obstacles to keep her down. The film will be available in DVD/VOD and a larger theatrical release starting June 14th. You’ll want to see this one. Any film with a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes is worth watching, in my book at least.
Written In Bombay By
Brennan R. MacLean
YouTube Golden Bear Productions