Shonali Bose’s latest, Margarita With a Straw, revolves around Laila (Kalki Koechlin) who is afflicted with a debilitating disorder: cerebral palsy. She moves around in a wheelchair, speaks with great difficulty and relies on her mother for such daily chores as taking a shower, combing her hair or putting on clothes. But for the good part of the film — nearly till the first half of its runtime — we are not told what Laila is suffering from, because the film doesn’t see her as a patient. Laila is pretty much her own woman, falling in and out of love, rejecting and being rejected, coming to terms with her desires. A good film respects its audience. A better film respects its audience as well as its characters — Margarita With a Straw, for the most part, is a better film.
Margarita With a Straw endears us to its world because Bose and Koechlin understand the importance of detail and venerate the unspoken. Take, for instance, an early scene in the film, where Laila has to be carried up the stairs in her college, because the lift in the building is not working. The two helpers hold Laila’s wheelchair like automatons, talking to themselves without acknowledging her presence, as if holding a luggage. And all this while, Laila doesn’t utter a word, her listless gaze fixed at the stairs. With only a bit of unrelated chatter, and a lot of silence, Bose gets to the heart of her character’s conundrum: no matter how normal Laila may aspire to be, her humiliation, be it explicit or implied, is only a step away.
It’s quite clear that Bose, through Koechlin’s Laila, is interested in exploring the definition of normalcy. Laila stands out from the crowd — both because of her disorder and sexual orientation — but should she be judged on things she didn’t choose? If you are maladjusted and yet content, do you still remain, for the lack of a better word, ‘abnormal’? Bose is, of course, neither the first nor the only filmmaker to explore this motif — the unlikely bond between Laila and a fellow blind college student, Khanum (Sayani Gupta), echoes in parts the 1964 film Dosti. Both the relationships, though markedly different, have one partner complementing the bodily limitation of the other, showing how companionships can offset hurdles, even those that are physical. Familiar as they may be, the questions posited by Bose are not banal, because we keep finding new ways, and reasons, to exclude people.
Bose, in a deft writing stroke, shifts Margarita With a Straw’s settings after the first 25 minutes, as Laila moves to the U.S. (she enrolls in New York University to pursue a career in the arts) — a country, unlike India, that cares for the differently abled. In most films, this would have signalled a new plot point, resulting in a turnaround in Laila’s life. However, Bose’s film is smarter, because Laila’s life changing for the better in the U.S. is only temporary. Once she returns to India, she’s forced to confront a barrage of unsettling events, some of which are intricately tied to her stay in America. And it has less to do with her medical condition (or the people around), more to do with who she is: a confused twenty-something who is still figuring out her priorities and preferences. Laila (Koechlin manages to hit the right notes nearly always, with plenty of mirth and grace) doesn’t always make the right decisions for herself, or for ones around her, but Bose doesn’t treat her preferentially just because she’s battling a permanent disorder. Most scenes in Margarita With a Straw unfold with a spirit that’s ubiquitous to many urban lives: hesitancy commingling with humour, desire with shame, self-pity with self-defence.
But, even with a lot going for it, Margarita With a Straw falls short of being a wholly powerful, reflective film. Because even though Bose painstakingly crafts scenes imbued with sobering realisations and profound observations, she shies away from taking them to their satisfying conclusions as she cuts to the next scene a little too soon: even before we have completely engaged with the previous one and registered its emotional impact. As a result, many scenes appear curiously unfulfilled: throbbing with searing intensity, yet frustratingly incomplete. Bose’s choice — to not hold the scenes for a while longer — is especially puzzling, because elsewhere in the film, she sets the scenes and allows her characters to settle in a rhythm with assured equanimity.
However, the most notable triumph of Margarita With a Straw is that it keeps asking disconcerting questions of its characters, and us, without spelling out the answers — demanding so much and providing so little, much like the world Laila has learnt to accept.
An edited version of this review was published in Firstpost.