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What sets Margarita, with a Straw apart

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriApr 20, 2015 | 16:06

What sets Margarita, with a Straw apart

I am not sure how precisely to articulate my feelings for Margarita, With a Straw, Kalki Koechlin's just released film in which she plays a young woman with cerebral palsy. It is of course a brilliant film, one of those movies where you know some beautiful revelation lurks around every corner, and you sit in heightened, glorious anticipation. Sure enough, the twists and turns duly arrive, leaving you teary-eyed one moment, laughing uproariously the next. On all those counts, M,WAS is a winner. And yet!

While the film has been marketed around the central character's disability, it is only partly about cerebral palsy; it is as much about the sexual awakening of a young woman who wants the world not to treat her specially but let her have what she deserves, not as a victim but as a regular person. Koechlin inhabits her character Laila completely. On every measure of acting prowess, she delivers a knockout performance, from how she rests her fingers on the table to the way she laughs in unwieldy, silent guffaws. Her slurred speech, subtitled for the viewer's benefit, captures with touching accuracy the reality of those with cerebral palsy.

Directors Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar tell a story that goes far beyond traditional conversations on disability. Laila is the lyric writer of the college band, and is in love with one of the band's members. Meanwhile, she is not averse to snogging another wheelchair-bound bloke. She pleasures herself when her younger brother has gone off to sleep (they share a room) and is a habitual consumer of porn. So far, so deliciously welcome.

But what sets M,WAS apart is that it is perhaps the first Indian film to treat gay desire without the baggage that such desire is always piled with in our cinema. Laila begins a terrific affair with Khanum (Sayani Gupta), whom she meets during a student protest in New York, and together they explore both love and desire. Their love is the real deal, giving it enough of a back story for us to root for it when it is in danger of sliding away. It is the central narrative strand of a film which will have Laila explore her attraction for men too, but none of those chapters will fulfil her the way her love with Khanum does. (In one scene, she fucks a male student from the creative writing program she attends but to no lingering after-effects.) To that extent, this is the first time that we see a mainstream Indian film legitimise gay desire around a central character and not show it as an aberration or a momentary loss of mental balance.

There is all this romantic possibility coursing through the film and then there is Aai, Laila's mother, played by the preternaturally gifted Revathy, an icon of south Indian films whom we don't see nearly enough in Bollywood (the other Hindi film she was recently in is 2 States). Aai is the principal character in Laila's life, dropping her to college every day, bathing her, worrying about her daughter's possibilities at love. She accompanies her to New York when Laila gets an opportunity to study writing there, and she is back in India to welcome her home when Laila returns for the first time with Khanum. And it is to her that Laila must explain the dynamics of her relationship with Khanum.

Such a lot happens in the short span of this film-a mix of the comic and tragic, with some pleasing detours along the way. And much of what transpires is set in motion by Laila with her desire to live by the truth. When the movie ends, we see her going on a date with herself, joyously sipping a margarita with a straw. By now she has lost a fair deal, yet she has also learnt things about herself that only the passage of time can teach us. We don't know where she is headed. We are asked to be happy for her, and maybe we should be, for the look in her eyes tells us she is on the cusp of a great ride.

And yet, we cannot bring ourselves to be happy for her. We worry for her, for her future and for where all this wonderful self-knowledge might lead her. We want her to find someone and be with them. We want her to, if possible, reunite with Khanum. The film has given us every reason to hope for that outcome, but with the path to self-discovery that it has set Laila on, it has also robbed us of wishing upon her some ordinary, everyday happiness. We look at her mischievous smile as she sips her margarita but we want that smile to be shared not with us, distant beacons to her possible joys, but with a flesh-and-blood character who would usher into her life all the wondrous possibilities that this film has pointed towards from its first frame.

Last updated: April 20, 2015 | 16:06
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