One of the disadvantages of living in a small town is that movies with a limited audience are seldom released here. And so I had missed watching this movie when it was released in 2014. But then a great film can always be talked about, irrespective of the time since its release. I caught up with this Kalki Koechlin masterpiece on Netflix last night.
Right in the beginning of the film is a scene where a young student on a wheelchair has to be lifted up several floors of steps as the elevator is not functioning. The camera focuses on Kalki’s face and her discomfiture, instead of on the men lifting her wheelchair. It sets the tone for the screenplay which follows.
Margarita with a Straw is the story of Laila (Kalki Koechlin), a young woman with cerebral palsy. It is a tale of her coming of age and discovering herself. This is Kalki Koechlin’s best performance to date. She manages to get Laila’s body language, speech and emotions perfectly right. Brought up by a Maharashtrian mother (Revathi) and a Sikh father (Kuljeet Singh), Laila is fairly independent and blends with her Delhi University college mates easily. She enjoys writing lyrics for her college band. It is an age where she experiences the psychological ebbs and tides that any other teen does. Circumstances take her to New York to pursue a course in creative writing where she meets Jared (William Moseley), who is her writing partner. She develops a strong bond with Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a fierce Pakistani girl who is visually impaired. It is here that she begins to explore her sexuality and discover herself.
Margarita with a Straw is directed by Shonali Bose, and written by Bose and Nilesh Maniyar. Devoid of the usual stereotypes that Indian films about disability usually depict, this film is a refreshing breath of fresh air. Where the film needs much applause, is the way in which the screenplay is conceived. There is not an ounce of self-pity or pessimism surrounding Koechlin’s depiction of her condition. Through several images- the way Laila negotiates her wheelchair, or uses an iPad to speak, or the way Khanum chops vegetables or ‘sees’ a museum or looks at her watch- the viewer is drawn to their world, seeing a different way of doing normal things. You almost forget about their disability. Until you come to that one scene where Laila has to be lifted in someone’s arms to use the toilet. The intimate scenes are treated with a tenderness that come across as touching on screen.
The relationship between Laila and her mother is explored through several wordless scenes. Whether it means driving her to college, or teaching her to independently travel in Manhattan, Revathi’s portrayal of a mother who is around, but not over-protective is memorable. This is a film which belongs to Kalki Koechlin and Revathi- both remarkable actresses and women. And to Shonali Bose for her sensitive and honest attempt to tell a story from the heart. Watch it. They don’t make such moving films too often.