I’m going to be pretty upfront here: I’ve never seen a movie like Margarita with a Straw. This 2015 Indian film, directed by Shonali Bose, follows the story of 19-year-old Laila (Kalki Koechlin) as she navigates school, love, sex, and her own bisexuality in India and in America. She also happens to have cerebral palsy.
“What is normal, who is normal, who gets to say what is normal—just throwing that question out is really what impacts, what can make people rethink themselves,” Bose told me over the phone.
It’s an objectively ambitious undertaking to address LGBT identity (in a country where homosexuality is illegal) and disability in one hour and 40 minutes. But from the very beginning, Margarita—available on demand and on iTunes in the U.S. as of June 14 and on DVD on June 28th—handles both issues with ease, levity, and defiance, reminding us that people are so much more than their labels. The audience is quickly disarmed by Koechlin’s magnetic portrayal of Laila, who was inspired by Bose’s own cousin Malini Chib, an author born with CP (although the film isn’t based on Chib’s personal story).
Laila is a student at University of Delhi who casually dates a wheelchair-bound boy in her class and plays in a band with her able-bodied friends. Upon receiving a scholarship to NYU, she moves to New York City, where she meets a passionate Bangladeshi-Pakistani young woman, Khanum (Sayani Gupta), who is blind. The two hit it off as friends, but soon, their relationship becomes romantic. They travel together to India to visit Laila's family, who are oblivious to the girls' affair—that is, until Laila decides to inform her mother (Revathi) of the truth.
Although the character of Laila uses a wheelchair, actress Koechlin is able-bodied. At a time when films like The Theory of Everything, Cake, and Still Alice are widely criticized for not only casting able-bodied people in disabled roles, but also for nearly fetishizing the tragedy of disability, it may be disconcerting that Margarita stars an able-bodied actor, particularly in the eyes of Western audiences. After all, there is a difference between portrayal and representation.
“In North America, I have to hear the flak about, ‘Well, you could have tried harder. Why didn’t you choose a person with CP?’” Bose, who has lived in the U.S. for decades, told me. But in India, her friends in the disability movement were just happy to see a film starring a disabled character—particularly a fully realized disabled character in touch with her sexuality—getting made.
“The disability movement has come way ahead in the U.S.… The activists [in India] are in a different place in the movement,” she said, explaining that the disabled community in India is still fighting for accessibility in the streets, as well as shops and restaurants.
Before Koechlin was even considered for the role of Laila, Bose, who is an active ally in India’s CP community, endeavored to find an actress who actually had cerebral palsy for the role. “At first I was very committed to that because if someone has CP, they must be given the opportunity,” Bose said. After she was unable to find someone who was comfortable with the film’s sexual content, she turned to able-bodied actresses.
When Koechlin accepted the role, she spent six months training for the part, spending plenty of time with Chib. “I lived with her in her house, I went to her place of work… I went drinking with her, I went to movies with her,” Koechlin described in a phone interview with Fusion. “I got to see her in her personal space and in a public space, and see how other people treat her and look at her.”
Of course, Laila’s sexuality also makes her a groundbreaking character in Indian cinema. There’s a heterosexual sex scene between Laila and her NYU classmate (William Mosely), as well as a sex scene with Khanum. India’s Censor Board is notorious for heavily censoring films with any LGBT material. Bose’s last movie, Amu, was actually banned, although for unrelated political issues.
But Margarita with a Straw survived with just a few minor edits (to the hetero sex scene, in fact) and was allowed to screen on 300 screens in India. What’s more, Koechlin won a National Film Award for her portrayal, seemingly signaling some level of newfound acceptance of queer issues. “The president is giving you an award,” Koechlin explained. “So if they have acknowledged a film like this, which has the subject of gay relationship, I feel like that’s a huge nod, and I’m really hopeful that things will change.”
"That was what blew me away in India—how it got past people’s myths and prejudices, either about the disabled or about people who are gay," Bose said of the overwhelmingly positive response.
What truly makes Margarita the pioneering film that it is, what brings it all together, is the fact that Laila’s character is just a normal 19-year-old girl—her bisexuality and her CP, while crucial aspects of her identity, do not define her. “It’s about a teenage girl who is discovering her sexuality, who is making mistakes, who isn’t perfect, and is discovering who she is as a person, and she happens to be disabled,” Koechlin told me.
In the film, after Laila’s band wins a talent show, the MC uncomfortably singles out Laila and her disability. In a very patronizing tone, he asks if she can say something to the audience, presumably an inspirational speech about all that she’s overcome. In response, Laila flips him the bird. After all, she’s a feisty teenager.
“This should just be a regular coming-of-age story,” Bose told me. “You should be able to think, ‘Oh this is me’ if you’re an able-bodied 17-year-old as well.”