‘Margarita, With a Straw’ : Toronto Review
Indian star Kalki Koechlin shines as a bisexual young woman with cerebral palsy in director Shonali Bose’s second film, an award-winner from Toronto
From a nutshell description, Margarita, With a Straw couldn’t sound more inclusive and PC: a young Indian woman (Kalki Koechlin) with cerebral palsy discovers her own bisexuality — when she falls in love with a blind girl (Sayani Gupta), no less. But wait, it’s actually rather sweet, and not anywhere near as issue-driven and preachy as it might sound on paper. That said, given one of its co-producing partners is ADAPT, the Indian NGO that supports people with CP, there is a detectable consciousness-raising, didactic vibe about it.
Still, director Shonali Bose’s second feature after Amu (2005), which won the NETPAC Award in Toronto this year, slips down smoothly like the film’s eponymous cocktail and should easily pick bookings at festivals abroad, especially ones with human rights and gay and lesbian foci. At home, well-known star Koechlin’s casting will attract substantial attention and generate controversy considering on-screen depictions of homosexuality, or of disabled people having sex for that matter, which are still very much taboo on the subcontinent.
Wheelchair-using college student Laila (Koechlin) attends the University of Delhi and lives at home with her middle-class parents (Revathy and Kuljeet Singh, respectively as mom and dad) and her little brother Monu (Malhar Khushu). With her natural beauty, mile-wide smile and can-do attitude towards her disability, she’s popular among her coevals and contributes lyrics to a student band comprised of able-bodied students. Like any young woman of 18 or 19, she’s very much interested in sex and has a major crush on a bandmate (Tenzin Dalha), but when he rejects her overtures she’s heartbroken.
When Laila receives word that she’s been accepted to New York University on a full scholarship, she embraces the chance to make a fresh start although it will mean her mother will have to come with her for a semester or so to help settle her in. In a creative writing class, handsome Brit blond boy Jared (William Moseley, from the Chronicles of Narnia franchise) catches her eye and is assigned to help her with her typing.
However, stumbling into an Occupy demonstration one day, Laila makes a new friend in Khanum (Sayani Gupta, Tasher Desh) a feisty, very attractive half-Pakistani, half-Bangladeshi girl who’s lived all over the world. The two young women soon become inseparable best friends, enacting a bond over their “horizontal identities” as differently-abled people, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Solomon’s recent study Far From the Tree. Before long, the two become lovers in a sensual but not especially explicit love scene. Their relationship blossoms, although Laila quails at the idea of coming out to her parents, and still finds herself attracted to men. Thinking that the young women are just best friends, Laila’s mother happily invites Khanum to spend the winter break in Delhi with the family, where Laila finally builds up the courage to tell her mother what’s really going on.
Although decidedly specialist and Westernized in some way, Margarita is still very much an Indian film as well, one accoutered with dance sequences (albeit spontaneous, naturalistic ones) and a hefty dose of melodrama, generated by last-act revelations that raise the stakes for all involved. Some viewers not acclimatized to Indian cinema’s conventions may find the tumble of confrontations and tragedy in the second half a little de trop, but director Bose handles the material with a light, elegant touch. It helps that the cast, especially the remarkable Koechlin who gives a bravura performance in both physical and emotional terms, can carry it all off.
Altogether, it’s a very polished, accessible work, made even more so by the colorful lensing by Anne Misawa and a stirring musical soundtrack composed by the prolific Mikey McCleary, with lyrics by Prasoon Joshi.
Production companies: Ishan Talkies, Viacom18 Motion Pictures in co-production with Jakhotia Group and ADAPT
Cast: Kalki Koechlin, Revathy, Sayani Gupta, William Moseley, Hussain Dalal, Tenzin Dalha, Kuljeet Singh, Malhar Khushu
Screenwriters: Shonali Bose, Nilesh Maniyar
Producers: Shonali Bose, Nilesh Maniyar
Director of photography: Anne Misawa
Production designers: Somenath Pakre, Prasun Chakraborthy
Costume designer: Niharika Bhasin Khan
Editor: Monisha Baldawa
Music: Mikey McCleary, Prasoon Joshi
No rating, 100 minutes