Friday, April 17, 2015


Release date:
April 17, 2015
Shonali Bose (Co-director: Nilesh Maniyar)

Kalki Koechlin, Revathy, Sayani Gupta, Kuljeet Singh, Hussain Dalal, William Moseley, Tenzin Dalha
Hindi and English with subtitles

A young woman with cerebral palsy gets sexually adventurous...

That single-line description is enough to convey the point that Margarita With A Straw is both brave and rare. Thematic courage need not translate into great cinema, but writer-director Shonali Bose grabs the subject with both hands, refuses to pussyfoot around it and handles it with remarkable sensitivity. In the ultimate analysis though, Margarita is uncommon not only for its unusual heroine but also because, unlike too many films revolving around a physically challenged person, it does not set out to draw tears. It is a celebration of a remarkable life.

Nagesh Kukunoor has often said about his pathbreaking film Iqbal: a few minutes into watching it, you will forget it is about a boy with a disability. Though not quite in the league of Iqbal, Margarita With A Straw manages pretty much the same thing in spite of a major difference between their leads: Iqbal was deaf-mute, Laila’s debilitating condition stares us in the face. That we’re able to get past it to focus on the bright, sparkling human being beneath is a measure of the film’s excellent writing, deft direction and Kalki Koechlin’s wonderfully natural performance.

Perhaps “performance” is not the best word to use in this context. So comfortable is Kalki with Laila, that it would be easy to forget she is the same healthy actress with a ramrod-straight back we know well. Like Laila, she does not deny her character’s reality, but she certainly does not spend all her time dwelling on it either. Kalki lives Laila but does not for a moment allow the physical demands of the role to overshadow her character’s emotional depth.

When we first meet Laila Kapoor, she is a student in a Delhi college whose spirit is not bound by the wheelchair that carries her body. She writes lyrics for an indie band, watches adult videos on her computer, touches herself unapologetically, has a lively social circle and balks at being singled out for a prize at a university contest because she happens to be “disabled”. Give her empathy and compassion, not favours or condescension – got it?!

Laila’s classmate (Hussain Dalal) who is also in a wheelchair makes it clear that he wants them to be more than friends, but she is attracted to the band’s lead singer. Nima (Tenzin Dalha) responds to her romantic overture with embarrassment. Laila soon takes off for a creative writing course in New York University (NYU). The story travels from New Delhi to New York and back, as she finds love, romance and sex, and realises that they are not synonyms. The film’s title is drawn from the first alcoholic drink Laila consumes – at a nightclub with a friend in the US. 

Along with the writing, DoP Anne Misawa too deserves credit for not allowing us to stay overly conscious of Laila’s physical condition. Misawa shoots Laila primarily in close-ups and mid-shots, possibly to de-emphasise the perennial presence of that darned wheelchair in her life. Her camera also captures New Delhi and New York in an unstereotypical fashion, without setting them up as cities of cliched contrasts and without mandatory excursions to globally recognised landmarks. FYI outsiders, those metallic sculptures resembling giant sperms are a relatively recent addition to the vicinity of Delhi’s iconic All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

A large part of the success of Margarita comes from its talented leading lady. Among the rest of the cast, Hollywood-gazers might enjoy spotting the attractive William Moseley here playing Laila’s NYU classmate Jared – same boy who played Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia film series. Of the other supporting players, a special cheer must go out to Revathy who brings warmth and conviction to Laila’s Aai as she does to every one of her screen appearances; and to the sweet-looking newcomer Tenzin Dalha who subtly conveys awkwardness without revulsion towards Laila in a flicker of a moment that might have been overplayed by a lesser actor.

One quibble: Tenzin does not look Assamese even to my inexpert eye, so it’s strange that the screenplay gets Nima to specify that he is. This moment stands out because no other character in the film is required to announce their roots, which led me to google him and discover from that he is “an Indian actor of Tibetan origin”. Characters from north-eastern India are rarely seen in Hindi films, but this plus point in favour of Margarita is neutralised by the self-conscious handling (we did not have to be told where Nima is from) and what seems like a “they all look the same” attitude towards anyone from the east, south or north of West Bengal.

Treat that as a passing caveat from a finnicky viewer, because the overwhelming takeaway from Margarita is a sense of of upliftment. Considering the widespread tendency to view persons with disabilities as asexual beings, the film’s comfort level with the theme is commendable. Even when Aai is shocked at a mention of bisexuality, the director clearly is not. In fact the nicest part of this film is that it does not make a song and dance of anything, not even Laila’s challenges. Even her strained speech is conveyed to us without a fuss, with the simple act of subtitling.

In a bid to stay positive though, it does seem like Margarita papers over too many of the problems a character like Laila is likely to face in the real world. The ease with which she finds sexual partners defies believability even in the more liberal climes of the US. The ending, too, comes off as unnecessary. Kalki’s sunny smile is enough to convince us that Laila is a woman brimming with life, who is keen on romantic relationships but does not assess her worth based on whether others want her. The point did not have to be rubbed in with that slightly forced finale.

These glitches notwithstanding, Margarita With A Straw is a beautiful film.

Rating (out of five): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):

Running time:
102 minutes

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