by Emma Burles
Laila’s first encounter with love doesn’t end well, after she mistakes her platonic encounters with a fellow student for a growing mutual attraction. Coupled with a mortifying win at a local battle of the bands competition, during which it is announced that Laila’s celebral pralsy was the reason for her band’s award, a humiliated Laila (Kalki Koechlin) refuses to go back to college. Fortunately she soon receives a scholarship to study creative writing at college, and her supportive family backs her decision to venture out into the world.
Her plans are slightly different to what they have in mind though: whilst her mother berates her about keeping up with her studies, Laila is discovering love and sexuality for the first time, free of her family’s well-meaning but watchful eyes.
She soon meets Khanum (Aurag Kashyap), a beautiful young blind woman, who inspires her with her lust for life and her refusal to be defeated by her disability; and the two embark on a relationship, which throws up all sorts of new challenges for Laila as she deliberates how to tell her traditional Indian family that she is bisexual.
Inspired by a conversation with her sister Malini, who has celebral pralsy, director Shonali Bose states that the idea for Margherita began to take shape after she asked Malini what she wanted for her 40th Birthday, at which Malini, angrily asserted “I just want to have sex by the time I’m 40!” With this in mind she began to think about her sister’s sexuality, and decided to tackle this topic via film.
The film is generally very upbeat and optimistic in its portrayal of disability and sexuality, although there are plenty of heartbreaking and subtly touching moments: Laila’s mother’s face dropping silently as Laila tells her she has met someone she likes; Laila editing her wheelchair out of Facebook profile pictures; Laila’s betrayal of Khuman in her quest to feel normal.
Discussing the decision to cast actors without celebral pralsy or blindness in the main roles, Bose says that she auditioned many actors with and without these disabilities until she found her leads: Kalki Koechlin (an Indo-French actress who has achieved much success in the recent films of Anurag Kashyap), and emerging talent Sayani Gupta, playing the roles of Laila and Khanum respectively. The pair underwent extensive training for the role, which included body conditioning, speech and movement therapy and spending vast amounts of time in the company of individuals suffering from these disabilities.
Explaining during a promotional interview what drew her to the role, leading actress Kalki Koechlin states, “You think of disability and you might feel like it should be a dark or depressing film, or that it should be about pity. This film rejects that idea and really just talks about the person behind the disability, you see Laila as a person and that’s really the point of this film: that we are all just people”.
Speaking about the reason for the title, Bose announces that it goes deeper than Laila drinking the cocktail Margherita, like all her drinks, through a straw. It’s also about her refusal to let her obstacles dictate her life; during the course of the film she learns to accept what she has been dealt in life and have fun regardless.
A beautiful and uplifting portrait of life as a young person with a disability, Margherita With A Straw takes us on Laila’s journey of discovery, which eventually leads to her accepting herself instead of hoping others will.