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22 October 2014

Margarita, with a Straw: an Indian indie film with a lot to say about disability and sexuality

Central character Laila is hounded by reminders that she’s different, but refreshingly, never accepts this herself.

By Eleanor Margolis

Laila is a music fanatic who enjoys writing lyrics for her high school band, and masturbating to internet porn. She also has cerebral palsy. And, according to nearly everyone but her, someone in a wheelchair can’t be a “normal” teenager. Normality, whatever that may be, is something that’s widely explored in Indian film Margarita, with a Straw, which made its UK debut at this year’s London Film Festival.

Laila is hounded by reminders that she’s different. At the beginning of the film, we see her cropping out her wheelchair in a picture on Facebook. When she breaks up with her first boyfriend Dhruv, who is also disabled, and starts flirting with the able-bodied lead singer of her band, Dhruv tells her bitterly that dating normal people won’t make her normal.

When we think that Laila has enough to contend with, in her disability, it’s later revealed that she’s also bisexual. Bearing in mind homosexuality is illegal in India, directors Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar seem to enjoy breaking taboos, and aren’t even slightly subtle about it.

Laila moves from Delhi to New York, where she’s been given a scholarship for a creative writing course at NYU. At a protest, she meets student activist Khanum. Lesbian cliché number one. Seemingly after their first date, Khanum asks Laila to move in with her. Lesbian cliché number two. Old Sapphic chestnuts aside, the physical intimacy between the two women, both of whom are disabled (Khanum is blind) is dealt with sensitively and quite beautifully. The sex is far from gratuitous, especially when compared to the seven-minute lesbian sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and leaves just about enough to the imagination. Laila’s motor skills are limited and her speech is strained, but that, the film stresses, doesn’t make her any less of a sexual person.

It’s also with Khanum that Laila, who comes from a fairly conservative background, has her first alcoholic drink (a margarita, with a straw). Throughout her relationship with Khanum, Laila gains confidence – the sexual kind in particular. She cheats on her girlfriend with a British boy called Jared, who she meets through her creative writing course. Jared, who looks like a Disney prince and sounds like something from Made in Chelsea, has the sex appeal of a mouldy bathmat. He’s played by someone called William Moseley, who’s as good at acting as he is sexy. The fact that a posh British boy would never be called Jared is one of a multitude of problems with this character.

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Unfortunately, Margarita, with a Straw (as well-meaning and sensitive as it may be) isn’t particularly well observed. Its portrayal of American youth culture is confused and dated. Khanum and Laila’s first date, for example, is at a jazz club.

But, as an Indian indie film, I’m prepared to let it off the hook a bit. The part of Laila is played by Kalki Koechlin, who clearly put a great deal of though into playing someone with cerebral palsy. She pulls off believability and a pretty controversial kind of sexiness with skill.

As you’d expect, Laila has difficulty coming out to her conservative parents. Laila unintentionally makes her mum laugh when she says that she’s “bi”, which is confused for the Hindi word bai, meaning “maid”. In this sweet and funny scene, the theme of differentness and failure to be understood is treated with a welcome lightness of touch.

Margarita, with a Straw isn’t a masterpiece. It is, however, a film with a lot to say about both disability and sexuality. And it says those things well.

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