Laila (Kalki Koechlin), the protagonist of Shonali Bose’s Margarita With a Straw, is like any other person in their late teens/early twenties, give or take a skill or two. She’s on Facebook. She’s terrific at chess. She’s into music – she writes lyrics for a band called Tribe. She’s friends with these musicians and she has a crush on the lead singer. She even sings a little, with her mother (Revathy), who she calls Aai. She laughs with her friends, She weeps when men she loves don’t love her back in that way. She swears. She fights with Aai. She makes up with Aai the way people in loving families do, invisibly, without manufacturing a production out of it. Oh, and she needs a wheelchair to get around because she’s afflicted with cerebral palsy.
With many filmmakers, this last aspect would eclipse everything else. One, because it’s the most obvious, visible thing. And two, this sort of thing really puts the fear of God in these filmmakers. They’re terrified they’ll be labelled insensitive, or that politically correct organisations will descend on them fuming with righteous indignation. And so they portray the afflicted person as a suffering saint. Or a conduit for a triumph-of-the-human-spirit message (though the overly symbolic last scene, as twee as the title, comes dangerously close). Or worse, a Wiki-page printout to be distributed to audiences, in order to “educate” them about the condition. I usually run a mile from these movies.
The utterly remarkable thing about Margarita is that Laila isn’t a differently abled person. She’s a person who is differently abled. The order of the words matters. The human being comes first, the condition only later. And like all humans, Laila craves intimacy, and not just a hug from Aai. Sanjay Leela Bhansali touched on this beyond-delicate issue in Black, when the deaf/blind protagonist wanted to know what it was like to be kissed – but Bose goes all the way. Laila talks to her wheelchair-bound classmate Dhruv (Hussain Dalal) about some “red top waali” he’s got his eyes on. She watches porn. And in a scene I’ve never seen on screen, she turns her wheelchair away from us and masturbates. I don’t know what was turning her on, but I kept thinking about Pahlaj Nihalani’s face.
In other words, take that wheelchair away and Laila is “normal.” The word comes up a few times in the movie. Dhruv has a crush on Laila, but she has feelings for that hunky singer. A disappointed Dhruv tells her, “Normal logon ke saath dosti karne se tum normal nahin ho jaaogi.” (You’re not going to become “normal” just because you hang out with “normal” people.) It’s refreshing, even touching, to hear this word used by someone in a wheelchair. No one knows better than Dhruv that, despite the efforts by the legions of the politically correct, he’d rather be “normal” than “special.” (I’m guessing Bose knows this too. The film is dedicated to her cousin Malini, who has cerebral palsy.) The film doesn’t make us pity Dhruv (or Laila, for that matter). It doesn’t call them abnormal. It just tells us that Dhruv defines normalcy the way a dictionary does, as “conforming to the standard or the common type.” The people around him who don’t need a wheelchair – to his eyes, they’re “normal.”
And he’s right about Laila. She yearns to be “normal.” In a too-strident scene that’s tonally off, Tribe gets the first prize at a rock competition, and the judge declares that it’s because the song’s lyrics were written by a “disabled” and “not normal” girl. Laila is furious. She retorts with a raised finger. The film’s conflict arises from this word, from the friction between desires that are “normal” and a physical state that isn’t quite.
And how can these desires not exist? Early on, we get the scene where Laila has to be carried up the stairs by two men, because the lift isn’t working. The camera sticks close to Laila’s face. Koechlin doesn’t do any semaphoric “acting,” and her blankness makes us want to read her mind. I thought we were being asked to respond to her helplessness, or perhaps her humiliation. But later, the New Delhi-based Laila moves to New York on an academic scholarship, and we get this scene where she is with her classmate Jared (William Moseley), and she needs to use the toilet. (Jared is another hunk; Bose appears to have cast the male roles with an eye on how easy on the eye these men are, so we know what Laila is reacting to.) Jared carries her in, and steps out. When she’s done, he comes back in, straightens her underwear, and lifts her from the seat. She clings to his shoulders for support, practically draping herself on him. And I saw that earlier scene, with the two men and the broken lift, in a new light. Given Laila’s condition, she’s constantly in positions that could be considered “romantic.” Men keep touching her. Men carry her. Men put their arms around her and lift her. They may look at the whole thing clinically, but surely all this physical proximity must be getting to her.
And then, we get the film’s biggest googly. In New York, Laila meets Khanum (a no-nonsense Sayani Gupta), who’s blind. The film takes on another disability – but again, there’s not a trace of stereotype, not a shred of self-pity. When we first see Khanum, she’s participating in a political protest that ends with tear-gassing. She makes a more radical statement with her style. She wears peacock-feather earrings, ornate rings, and in the film’s most moving moment (all the more moving for being so matter-of-fact), she applies eye shadow while getting ready for a date. She may not be able to see, but the ones who can need to know how hot she is, right?
Laila is one of those. She’s slowly drawn to Khanum, who’s gay, and discovers she’s bisexual. In her audience-friendly handling of hot-button issues, Bose is the multiplex version of Mani Ratnam. Her sense of humour is like his, delectably understated. Her narratives are like his, warm-hearted and mainstreamed, focusing more on the emotions of the characters than on the roughshod “reality” of their environment. (We don’t get much about, say, what it’s like being disabled in a country like India.) And this film features a Ratnamesque sprawl of ethnicities: a Maharashtrian mother, a Sikh father, an Assamese crush, a Pakistani-Bangladeshi Muslim girlfriend… But given that Bose’s films aren’t exactly “mainstream”, her sex scenes are bolder, and necessarily so. Not only has she made the kind of sexual-awakening film we rarely see in our cinema, she’s made one on a differently abled protagonist, one who coolly wheels into a store and asks for a vibrator. But there’s sexual confusion too. Even after Laila moves in with Khanum, she has sex with Jared – and who’s to say why? Maybe it’s just because she’s bisexual. Then again, maybe having sex with a man is another way of proving to the world (or at least to herself) that she’s “normal.”
The snide joke in Hollywood, especially around Oscar season, is that you’re guaranteed an award if you spend the movie stuck in a wheelchair – but Koechlin deserves all the recognition she’s getting. There’s a scene where she breaks eggs over a skillet, and cleans up the mess of shells and spilt yolk. There’s not one overdone motion. The woman sitting next to me murmured “bechaari,” and I wanted to tell her that Laila is anything but. The scene is practically a celebration of her independence, now that Aai is no longer around. You don’t think wheelchair. You think breakfast… yum!
Koechlin seems to be at her best when she’s playing some variant of a lost little girl. (It helps that her features look like they’re still being formed.) She played one in Dev.D. She plays one here. The scenes where she realises she’s attracted to Khanum are beautifully done. She plays an unplayable emotion, the feeling of having to redefine yourself after you thought you knew all there was to know about you. The best thing about Laila is that there’s none of that… nobility we’re asked to endure when differently abled characters show up on screen. Bose says it’s okay to laugh, at them, with them, and the upbeat (and excellent) background score reinforces this. When Laila’s creative writing professor asks her if she needs a writer to help her with an essay, she’s about to say no, and then she discovers that the writer is Jared. She says, “That would be wonderful.”
There are tears too, but they have nothing to do with – as you might have expected – Laila’s coming out to Aai. This happens during a scene that echoes an earlier one in which Aai was helping Laila bathe, and Laila announced that she had a crush on a guy. Now, the roles are reversed. Aai is unwell, and Laila is helping Aai bathe, and she tells Aai she likes Khanum. Aai is confused and angry, but she doesn’t break down. That happens elsewhere, in front of a mirror. Revathy gets her best scene, where she crumples from what seems to be sheer exhaustion. (She literally seems to deflate.) How much can one woman take? Margarita isn’t just about Laila. You can see Aai wishing, if only for that instant, that her life were “normal” too.
- red top waali = that girl in the red top
- bechaari = poor thing
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